Three afternoons each week without fail, Fred Chandler can be found at Black Hawk Elementary School.

The 82-year-old volunteer might be sitting at a table, quietly redirecting the attention of a student seated beside him back to the words on the page in front of them, or he might be in the hallway outside Janet Brissey’s classroom, taking turns reading a book with a kindergartner. Occasionally, he’ll help with science or social studies. Other times, students just want to talk.

“He is willing to work with any child, any time, any way, any place,” Lori Johnson said on a recent November afternoon, just after lunch and recess, ahead of Mr. Chandler’s arrival to her fourth grade classroom.

Like clockwork, Mr. Chandler was at the door at 1 p.m., his volunteer badge hanging from a lanyard around his neck.

“Where do you want me today?” he asked, his voice quiet and his tone unassuming.

Ms. Johnson directed him to a table to join a group of students whose hands had shot up in the air moments before when asked who wanted to sit with Mr. Chandler that day.

As Mr. Chandler joined the students, Ms. Johnson began to read. Mr. Chandler and the students around him followed along, with Mr. Chandler periodically pointing to the lines of text in the textbook.

“He has a quiet, soft, gentle demeanor, which encourages every student to do their very best,” Ms. Johnson had said prior to Mr. Chandler’s arrival.

That effect seemed to stretch beyond his table to the rest of the classroom.

“He’s never harsh, he’s never judgemental,” Ms. Johnson said. “He’s just a wonderful person to supplement our students’ education.”

Mr. Chandler has been a stalwart volunteer in Burlington schools since 2005, and at first glance, one might think him to be a retired teacher. Mr. Chandler, however, discovered his passion for education and helping children while navigating a less traditional path.

Mr. Chandler grew up in Indianapolis. He graduated high school in 1959 and attended Marian University for about a year before leaving to work at a bank.

“And then I decided I wanted to try the religious life and see how that was,” Mr. Chandler recalled on a recent afternoon ahead of his volunteer shift at Black Hawk.

In 1962, he took the name Brother Peter and joined the Franciscan community at a monastery in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he began organizing his religious life and working in a print shop. At the time, it had not occurred to him to work with youth, but the Franciscans had other plans.

“I guess they decided I should try my hand at working with kids,” Mr. Chandler said. “That was 1964. I’ve been working with kids off and on since that time.”

Mr. Chandler and another brother served about 40 residential, at-risk youth, and he began attending Mt. St. Joseph University off and on as his schedule allowed, eventually earning an associate’s degree in childcare.

In 1970, after taking his final vows, he was reassigned to a Chicago orphanage that housed between 400 and 500 children. Between working with the 13- and 14-year-olds in his care, he continued his education, this time pursuing a bachelor’s degree in education.

Meanwhile, about 250 miles away, a member of the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis, at the direction of the Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport, was in the process of founding a group home that ultimately would be called Young House, named for the previous owner of the home on Burlington’s North Fourth Street that would house the new organization.

Mr. Chandler joined that effort in 1972, first as an assistant, then as a coordinator, working primarily with teenage youth while getting to know the community.

“When I came and I first started at Young House, Brother Bob had a policy that we have a program and we want to dedicate ourselves to that, but to become better known in the community, find something else that you would like to do and volunteer for it when you have the time,” Mr. Chandler said. “I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do, and then somebody mentioned Head Start.”

He had never worked with children that young but decided to give it a try. He was a natural, and continued volunteering at Head Start off and on for the next four decades.

He also continued to work toward his bachelor’s degree, this time attending Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant.

“I almost got it, but I decided the Lord loved me in different ways and He decided I shouldn’t be a brother anymore, so I left the community,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. It’s just kind of a religious thing and you pray about it. Things had changed and I guess I had changed, too … Overall, I just felt it was time for me to leave.”

So in 1975, Mr. Chandler took a job as a city bus driver. His departure from the brotherhood meant he no longer could afford to pursue his education degree, but he never stopped helping children learn.

He retired from his city job in 2005 and, with more time on his hands, turned to the Retired & Seniors Volunteer Program of Des Moines County, which in turn connected him with the Burlington Community School District.

In addition to being a frequent presence at Head Start, Mr. Chandler began to spend time at North Hill, then at Grimes and Black Hawk, volunteering four days a week.

He continued his rotation right up until the pandemic forced schools to close and brought about visitor restrictions put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

After mitigation measures eased and schools re-opened their doors, Mr. Chandler got the call he had been hoping for for more than a year. It was Denise Michelson asking if he wanted to come volunteer with her students at Black Hawk.

He had missed working with the students and teachers he had come to know so well and didn’t hesitate to return to those he had come to consider his family.

“I went to the brothers and I was planning to do that for the rest of my life,” he explained. “I would’ve liked to have had a family, but I guess I’ve got a big family.”

And those at Black Hawk are happy to have him back.

“Mr. Chandler is amazing,” Black Hawk Principal Stacy Hatten said. “He has been faithfully coming to Black Hawk for the last 15-plus years. Fred loves to listen to kids read and helps them with writing letters as well. Fred comes at least 2-3 times a week and we love him.”

Get involved

Hatten said volunteers are needed to read with students, as well as help them with math facts and writing.

At Burlington High School, volunteers are needed for the after-school tutoring club, which meets from 3 to 3:40 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays in classroom 220.

Those wanting to volunteer first must complete and submit the Volunteer Self Disclosure Form, which can be found in Board Policy 903.3 under Exhibit A.

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