Russ Marineau of Naperville was sitting down to enjoy his first cup of coffee as a retired man 23 years ago when a neighbor stopped by.
The neighbor worked for Naperville Unit District 203, and she had an idea for him.
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Marineau's integrity, work ethic and people skills would make him the perfect leader of a group of volunteers recently established by two retired teachers, Naperville resident Mary Ann Bobosky thought in the early 1990s.
"We needed a volunteer director who would be there and he was just the person," Bobosky said. "It took a person like Russ who was willing to go that extra mile."
The volunteer program Marineau was recruited to lead -- Upbeat Retirees (and other) Residents Actively Helping -- now has his stamp all over it. Known as HURRAH, the service group has been recognized across the state as a prototype of an intergenerational program in which elders and youths both give and both receive the benefits of advice, company and a new perspective.
"I like to make it more than just a volunteer organization," Marineau said. "We wanted to have more of a social club atmosphere."
As Marineau transfers the reins of HURRAH to another longtime volunteer, Patrick Harrison of Naperville, the district honored the group's longtime leader with the Proud to be 203 award. Staff members who have worked with Marineau said the award recognizes his upstanding character and his efforts to connect volunteers with school programs where they can make a difference -- be it as a mentor, reading volunteer, spelling test grader, mock trial juror or business contest judge.
"Russ is one of the most compassionate, kind, caring, giving, generous gentlemen I've ever met," said Maureen Dvorak, school services manager. "He always looked out for his volunteers as he recruited them, made sure they were a good fit with whichever school and whatever kids they worked with."
When HURRAH got its start, the letters stood for something slightly different: Happy, Upbeat Recycled Retirees Actively Helping.
"We're taking business skills and recycling them into schools," said Marineau, 80, who spent his career working for IBM.
The group changed its name in 2002, dropping the word "recycled," which might seem an odd thing to call a person. The new name, which refers to Retirees (and other) Residents Actively Helping, is more reflective of the makeup of the group's 200 members and 100 active volunteers. They might not all be retired, but most do not have a child in any of the district's schools.
"About 60 percent of the households in District 203 do not have students in our schools," Dvorak said. "This is a great way for those families to connect back to District 203 and feel like they're giving back to their community."
Many HURRAH volunteers are personally recruited by Marineau or another leader, just as he was when Bobosky stopped by on his first day of retirement. HURRAH leaders meet with district staff members to find out where volunteers are needed within the district, then they work to connect the career expertise and giving interests of group members with the classes that need their help.
Marineau most often served as a mentor, meeting with one boy who had lost both of his parents, or another boy who was purposely doing poorly on tests because he wanted his father to come to school, and mandatory meetings to discuss bad grades seemed one of the only ways to get him there.
"He has a wonderful sense of humor, which is a vital thing to have when you're working with other generations," said Jane Angelis an intergenerational programs expert and editor of Continuance, a magazine created by the Illinois Board of Higher Education. "You have to be patient."
Julie Carlsen, director of community relations, said students open up to Marineau because he is a good listener and they can sense he understands. Other HURRAH volunteers have been just as successful as role models or grandparent figures.
"A lot of these folks really do serve as mentors for our students," Carlsen said. "It's another adult who is demonstrating that they care about children in a way that says learning is important. It gives kids a chance to relate to somebody who is different from them and realize the benefits that can be reaped from wisdom."
What makes the HURRAH program so special, experts say, is that it helps senior citizens, retirees and other volunteers reap the benefits of youthful knowledge as well. Angelis said the best programs don't just involve elders helping youth, or youth assisting elders, but they transfer knowledge both ways. This helps retirees enrich their lives once they have time out of the daily grind of work and commuting.
"We work so hard to make a living that we forget to make a life," said Harrison, 67, who is the new president of HURRAH's executive council. "This helps you round out and make a life."
For a handful of years, HURRAH has been running a technology training program at Naperville North High School as a perk for volunteers.
It started as personal computer advice and now has expanded. HURRAH volunteers can bring in any electronic device and a Naperville North student will teach them how it works. Members have learned to upload photos to Facebook and use Skype to have video chats with younger relatives.
Marineau also helped start a wellness program to evaluate the balance, motion and health of HURRAH volunteers and pair them with Benedictine University students for a personalized training program and exercise help.
"I've been retired 23 years," Marineau said, "and I haven't had a dull moment."