On January 8, 2011, Suzi Hileman ’73 (human development and family studies) took Christina Taylor Green, her 9 year-old-neighbor, to see congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords speak. Hileman was shot three times and survived, Green did not. In the wake of the tragedy, Hileman founded the nonprofit Grandparents in Residence (GRIN) to promote volunteerism in the local elementary school where the hugs, laughter and kindness of children helped her find physical and emotional healing.
In the months following the shooting, Hileman and her husband Bill were the media faces of the victims, their families, and the grieving Tucson community. One after another, journalists marveled at Hileman’s relationship with Green, calling it ‘intergenerational mentoring’ or labeling the outing as a civics lesson gone horribly wrong. For Hileman, it was simpler and more profound than that: she enjoyed Green’s company and Green enjoyed hers.
Two months after the shooting, still restricted to non-weight-bearing activities, Hileman was asked to judge photographs taken by 5th graders as part of a project at Prince Elementary. The experience--feeling the excitement of the students, teachers and administration--made it official for Hileman: she needed to volunteer with children.
She began to read to the five kindergarten classes at Prince, work with students in the math and spelling centers, and sit with students during lunch. At the April 2011 field days, she was declared the official Adopted Grandma of the elementary school, complete with a badge she wears on her Cornell lanyard (a Cornell sweatshirt stays in one of the classrooms for children having a bad day--the teacher calls it, ‘a hug from Suzi’).
“We all have skills and things that put a smile on our face,” Hileman said. “And there are small people who want to share that joy. Schools are so anxious for volunteers they can count on and all it takes is getting fingerprinted and showing up.”
On the one-year anniversary of the shooting, restless and unsure of what to do with herself, Hileman eventually wandered into a kindergarten classroom where the teacher announced to the students, ‘See, I told you we’d see Grandma Suzi today.’ “She knew me better than I knew myself.”
Relieved she had found a comforting space to spend the time, Hileman watched the minutes tick away until the teacher came over to her and said, “‘You know, 10:10 is going to happen whether you notice it or not. Just concentrate on the students.’” Hileman recalled. “They healed me as much as I helped them. It is impossible to be sad when little ones are hugging you.”
Spotting a need and an opportunity, Hileman started GRIN as a way to facilitate hassle-free volunteering. She does the paperwork for the volunteers and the school and she pays for everything with the help of generous friends; volunteers need only show up. There are yearly activities such as making Valentines with the middle schoolers, a spring picnic, and making frames for pictures with Santa; and there are regular activities, like helping with math and spelling centers, reading to kindergarteners and a garden tended by Hileman and any of the 600 elementary students who wish to join her.
While volunteerism is often lauded for the help it offers recipients, Hileman said a program like GRIN has a lot to offer the “grandparents” who participate.
“We don’t get a lot of new experiences, the older we get, and it’s a great way to get structure in your days. Take a chance to put yourself in a situation that’s familiar but different—schools are different than they were when I was in school. These kids are so kind to one another, on- purpose kind. It’s heart-warming. There’s so much love out there and a lot of us sit at home in our own silos doing our own siloed things. This is an easy way to be incredibly useful.”