Second-grader Logan Ballou spotted his Heartfields Book Buddy and quickly claimed the chair next to her, eagerly laying out a selection of books on the table.
“I love reading, it’s really fun to come here,” the 8-year-old said. “I like to do expressions and act how [the book characters] act. Ms. Jette is always interested when I read.”
Margaret Jette concurred. “These kids are all wonderful, and so well behaved!” she said. “It’s nice for us old folks to be around kids. It helps keep us young.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jette worked as a legal—and later corporate—secretary in several northeastern states. She and her husband, an information technology specialist, retired in the early 2000s and moved to Lake of the Woods to be near their grandchildren. Their daughter and her family live in the Fredericksburg area.
“I’ve been [at Heartfields] more than five years,” Jette said. “I came after my husband passed away.”
The assisted living center in southern Stafford County has had a Book Buddy partnership with Rock Hill Elementary School for nearly two decades. Started in 1999, it was the brainchild of Rock Hill teachers—and good friends—Beth Halterman and Jill McInnis. Halterman has been teaching at Rock Hill for 27 years. McInnis died of cancer in 2003.
“Jill and I both had great relationships with our own grandparents,” Halterman said. “We wanted to find a way to give our students the same kind of experience. The seniors in our community have so much to contribute.”
Heartfields was the only assisted living facility in the area at the time. “They were totally enthusiastic about it, and we’ve loved coming here ever since,” Halterman said.
Each fall, Halterman visits Heartfields for a “recruiting night,” to get a list of residents who are interested in participating. She tries to match personalities as she pairs each senior with one of her 22 to 26 second-grade students. In class, the students write a letter of introduction and make a calendar for their Book Buddy showing the nine visits they will make before the end of the school year.
During each visit the students spend about 30 minutes reading to their Book Buddy.
“I only wish we had more time,” Jette said. “I would love to meet longer, every week.”
“Every week—every day!” chimed in Logan. “I’d come every day after Sunday.”
Logan is the third child in his family to be Jette’s book buddy. Halterman intentionally matched Savannah, now in fifth grade, and Eliza, in third, with the same senior.
“Ethan’s next!” Logan said, referring to his younger brother. “He’s in kindergarten.”
“Savannah was hesitant about it at first, but after going the first time she couldn’t wait to go again,” said Teri Ballou, the children’s mother. “Now they’ve all really gotten to know Ms. Jette and Logan loves to go. He really looks forward to a Heartfields day.”
Ballou said her children report that Jette asks them questions, probing what they think about the reading material and sharing stories now and then from her own life.
“I think it’s a phenomenal program, I’m so glad my kids have been involved,” Ballou said. “The children benefit, the elderly benefit—you couldn’t ask for a healthier experience for everyone involved.”
Several of the Heartfields residents participating in the program were teachers or administrators before they retired.
“They get such massive enjoyment from having [the students] come,” Smith said. “For many of them, it’s like being in the classroom again.”
Over the years, one challenge for the program has been securing bus transportation to and from the school—a cost of about $600 each school year.
“We worked to get grants, we were grateful for donations from the Rotary Club and education foundations,” Halterman said. “But it was always uncertain. I never knew where it would come from.”
Then, a few years ago, Halterman approached her friend, Deborah Mayberry, CEO of The Bowen Group, a Stafford-based business that provides a wide array of health and wellness services to members of the military community.
“Beth said they were struggling for funding and I volunteered, I told her my company would love to help out,” Mayberry said. “It’s something so little we can do to invest in such an incredibly valuable program.”
“I can’t tell you what a relief it is to have that covered,” Halterman said. “I talk with the students about it, we send thank yous—I try to show them how all the pieces connect to make this happen.”
As Logan and Jette opened “Educating Arthur” by Amanda Graham—a humorous early reader involving a havoc-wreaking canine—he said one thing would make the Book Buddy program better.
“Add dogs!” he said. “Put a dog right here with me and Ms. Jette. Dogs like reading too!”