Although preferring anonymity, top Lancaster Elementary volunteer turns into ‘school asset’

Volunteer George Richardson (right) helps Lancaster Elementary School first-grader Olivia Thomas, 7, with a difficult word as she reads aloud to him during class on Wednesday, March 29. Richardson volunteers the equivalent hours of a full-time employee, working year ’round at the school.
Volunteer George Richardson (right) helps Lancaster Elementary School first-grader Olivia Thomas, 7, with a difficult word as she reads aloud to him during class on Wednesday, March 29. Richardson volunteers the equivalent hours of a full-time employee, working year ’round at the school. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

Originally published April 6, 2017.

George Richardson says that “someone” twisted his arm to do this story. Truth told, it was more likely a bunch of “someones” who convinced him that he deserves all the attention he’s recently received.

“I like to be anonymous,” he said, simply.

But at Lancaster Elementary School, Richardson is anything but anonymous. His name is often heard overhead on the school’s PA system, summoning him for one task or another.

Richardson was singled out as a “community asset” recently, during a meeting of the Huntington County Community School Corporation’s Board of School Trustees, as part of a report presentation from the recent audit of the state of the school system. Education consultant Mike Pettibone said he kept hearing about someone called “George” as he was gathering information for the survey.

“I have a quote … ‘From Success to Significance,’ and I think George represents that,” Pettibone said. “If you don’t know George Richardson, George is a retired physical therapist who volunteers at Lancaster School every day. He comes to school every day and reads with first graders. He comes to school during the summers to help the maintenance staff. And he’s done this for over 20 years.”

Richardson arrives at Lancaster about 6 a.m. every day, even on snow days, says Principal Allie Holland. She says he is the perfect example of the school’s mission this year, “I Choose to Serve.”

“When he gets here he helps out our custodians and he also gets things ready,” she explained. “He really works with our first grade, so he’ll make copies for them and get things ready for the day. He also takes care of our recycling and all kinds of odds and ends within the building. And if you need anything, you just ask for George. Just today someone asked if there was an extra TV somewhere, and I said, ‘Just ask George, he’ll know.’”

Holland, who calls Lancaster’s top volunteer “invaluable,” says Richardson knows the school backwards and forwards and will do anything for anyone. And he’s been doing it faithfully.

“You see parent volunteers all the time,” she says. “But never anybody that has dedicated their life to volunteering here at the school every single day, and for the full day. I don’t know what we would do without him, honestly.

Holland added that Richardson has been a big help to her, showing her around the school when she first became principal and giving her helpful advice.

He also takes care of the school’s central courtyard, planting the greenery and keeping it well groomed.

“He just does everything – and he does it so secretively,” Holland adds.

When Richardson works with the first-graders, he will pull a student from class to have them read individually to him. He meets with each student once per week to help them hone their reading skills.

“It eases the teacher’s work to have somebody else in there doing this,” he says, humbly.

Richardson began volunteering a couple hours a week when his daughter started kindergarten at Lancaster. After he retired he went full time, continuing to work with the first grade and doing anything else he was asked to do.

“I always enjoyed working with my daughter on her classroom activities,” he explains. “Because of my work schedule before, it enabled me to be here during the day and I just enjoyed it, helping the children and doing the things that I do here. Too many retired people just go home and sit. That’s not me. I enjoy keeping busy.”

He can often be found changing light bulbs, sweeping the floors, moving things around or repairing broken objects. But it goes without saying that Richardson’s favorite task is spending time listening to the children read, and working with them to read better. There isn’t a child in the school past kindergarten who doesn’t know him.

It also goes without saying that Lancaster’s teachers are grateful for Richardson’s availability, dependability and dedication to keeping the school on an even keel.

“He is amazing. I have often told him that the building would fall down without him, just because he does lots of jobs around the building,” says first-grade teacher Jeanne Paff. “At the beginning of the year he has all the first-graders read to him one-on-one so he knows where their reading level is, and that’s just one more layer of reading reinforcement that the kids get, that they wouldn’t get otherwise … If he’s not working one-on-one with students, he’s helping somebody in the building make the building and facilities work well so the students are able to do their learning.”

At home, Richardson’s hobbies are similar to what he does at Lancaster – he does a lot of gardening and work outside, and he loves to read.

“I guess that’s why I enjoy helping children learn to read,” he says.

He allows that being around the children also keeps him young, and on his toes. But he’s quick to note that it’s really not about him, after all.

“I feel that I’m giving back to the community and helping others,” he explains. “I’ve been blessed, so why not bless others as well?”