Local 96-Year-Old Woman Volunteers Helping Elementary Children Learn to Read

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing

Photography Provided

For years Yetive Williams lived in Matthews, a small town in northern Indiana, with her husband, Marion, and their five children. After her husband passed away in 1993, her teacher and friend, Betty Burden, asked Williams if she would consider tutoring some of her first-grade students who struggled with reading.

“I went home and prayed about it and decided to do it,” recalls Williams, who was 72 years old at the time.

So, at a time when a lot of people start spending their days playing Sudoku, watching Wheel of Fortune and planning their next getaway trip to the Sunshine State, Williams dove into weekly tutoring sessions with youngsters who were 6-plus decades her junior.

“I’ve never lived the normal retired life,” Williams says.

And she couldn’t be happier about it. It didn’t take long for Williams to realize how much she loved this job. She recalls one of the first little girls she tutored who had been held back two times before she began seeing Williams.

“She should have been in third grade and she still didn’t know her alphabet,” says Williams, who patiently worked one-on-one with her, week after week, until finally one day the student read the entire book out loud by herself. When she realized what she’d accomplished, her eyes widened, as did her smile.

“I read that,” she said. “I really read that!”

“Yes, you did,” Williams said proudly. “And you can read anything.”

She says that’s the beauty of teaching people to read — helping them unlock the magic that gives them entrance into a world of knowledge, make-believe and wonder.

Williams tutored at Burden’s school for five years before relocating to Brownsburg in October 1998 to be closer to her son Jay, his wife and their newborn baby, who lived in the area.

When Williams moved to Brownsburg, she began volunteering at Connection Pointe Christian Church where she tutored both adults and children. There she was approached by Buddy Faulkner, a friend at the church who works at Eagle Elementary. He asked if she had any interest in tutoring students at Eagle. It seemed like a great fit as the school was in close proximity to her house, plus she adored children. For the past three years, she’s worked primarily with Chelsea Wheeler’s first-grade class — volunteering for an hour and a half each Wednesday morning and working with four to six students a day. Wheeler notes that it’s always a struggle trying to pick who will get to read with Mrs. Williams because every time she asks the class who would like to go first, all hands go high in the air.

“Mrs. Williams has been such a blessing to my first-graders. The patience and attention to detail she provides is remarkable,” says Wheeler, who looks forward to their weekly talks. “I have thoroughly enjoyed having her volunteer in my classroom for the past few years.”

In tutoring, Williams has found that some students struggle to learn not because they have a disability or deficit but simply because they do better working one-on-one than in a crowd. Ty Thompson appreciates the one-on-one interaction.

“She helps me sound out words when I don’t know them,” Thompson says.

Reece Bowling says she looks forward to her tutoring time with Mrs. Williams because “she helps me with periods and questions.”

“I love reading with Mrs. Williams because she helps me read better by helping me sound out words,” adds Angela Spellman.

“Wednesday mornings are definitely a favorite in my room because of Mrs. Williams’ presence,” Wheeler says.

The key to success, says Williams, is patience, persistence and a passion for the job at hand.

“Children don’t learn to read overnight, but when they do finally get it, it’s so satisfying,” says Williams, whose own education involved eight years at a one-room schoolhouse, followed by a high school that had a big library.

“It was so nice. When I entered that library, I thought I’d gone to heaven,” says Williams, who asked the librarian if she could help out with the books after school while she waited for the bus to circle back around to pick up its second round of students.

Williams’ love for the written word was born well before she enrolled in school because her older sister used to play “teacher” and often read to Williams.

“I learned to read from her before I was an official student,” Williams says.

And now she’s passing that ability on to the kiddos at Eagle Elementary.

Kim Graham, the treasurer at the school, calls Mrs. Williams the highlight of her Wednesday mornings in the Eagle office.

“She reminds me of my own grandmother — funny, sweet and a little sassy,” Graham says. “I enjoy hearing about her family and especially about how she loves to help our first-graders learn to read. She truly gets so much joy from helping them. It’s so fun to see.”  

Now 96, Williams has been tutoring close to 25 years, and she has no plans to step down or ease up.

“I love to read. I love children. And I love to hear children read,” Williams says. “Volunteering at Eagle combines my two big loves in life.”

She encourages other retirees to volunteer as well, just as she did years ago when she said “yes” to tutor kids in Betty’s classroom.

“I realized after my husband passed that living in that big eight-room house all by myself was not a good thing,” Williams says.

Keeping busy not only helped her process her grief but it also gave her a renewed purpose in life. She also still volunteers at Connection Pointe’s library every Monday — something she’s been doing since 1999. Plus, she participates in a weekly women’s bible study.

Williams still lives independently, doing all of her own cooking, cleaning and laundry. She drives herself places, pays the bills and is completely self-sufficient.

“If I’m cleaning the house and my back starts to hurt, I sit down and read a while, then get up and do some more,” Williams says. “Though I must admit, if I’ve got a good book, it’s hard to set it down.”