Carmela Staropoli, better known as “Grandma Carmela,” was Liberty Elementary School’s first Foster Grandparent. The title was one she cherished – a role she assumed daily with pride and delight. The Foster Grandparent program matches local senior citizens with elementary classrooms, where they act as a teacher’s helper – a volunteer grandparent.
For 17 years, hundreds of children passed through the doors of teacher Cathy Wilhelm’s classroom and through the arms of Grandma Carmela. Mrs. Wilhem’s first year teaching was also Ms. Staropoli’s first year as a Foster Grandparent. Together they navigated their new roles, helping each other become comfortable in the uncharted territory of shaping young minds.
For Ms. Staropoli, coming to Mrs. Wilhelm’s class each day was not something to keep her “busy.” She was already an energetic senior who was active in Corporal Russell D. Sprague Post #109, American Legion, in Liberty where she had served as commander and chaplain. She was a member of the Women's Army Corps Veterans Association, a charter member of the Monticello Kennel Club, a past president of the Sullivan County Italian-American Association and a member and treasurer of the Liberty Lioness Club. She was a volunteer with the Sullivan County Office for the Aging, a former member of the Livingston Manor Senior Citizens and a board member of the Liberty Rural Housing Agency.
Volunteering for the children was her true passion – it was her
heart’s work as well as her life’s work. Having no children of her
own, she doted on the hundreds of students she came to know over
In her role as classroom helper, she assisted Mrs. Wilhelm with filing, copying, collating – the busy work of an efficient classroom. Her military background as a Staff Sergeant in the US Air Force instilled in her a dedicated and professional work ethic. It was her role as student helper, however, that brought her true joy. She enjoyed leading the students in small-group spelling and math games, and her favorite time of day was hearing the children read to her. Her pride in each student as she listened to their stories was palpable, her compliments plentiful. If a child struggled with a task she was patient, if they needed someone to listen she was that caring ear.
When Carmela Staropoli spoke, children listened. Not because she was strict or mean. Not because she looked like a princess or a movie star. Children listened because they wanted to hear what she had to say. Respect and responsibility were two traits that she strived to teach students. To Grandma Carmela, respect and responsibility and had many meanings – for others, for yourself and for your country.
As a veteran, she initiated the Color Guard at the bi-monthly Celebrate Success programs and worked hard to instill a sense of pride in our country. She helped run mock elections for the governor and presidential elections and each year she borrowed a “model” voting booth from the Government Center. She spearheaded Christmas and Valentine’s for Veteran’s card programs and encouraged children to create the best card they could because that might be the only card a Veteran receives.
When new Foster Grandparents came on board, many due to her encouragement, she mentored them and when she saw child outside of school, their enthusiastic hugs greeted her. When meeting their parents, she always made it a point of letting them know what a “wonderful, precious child” they had because she sincerely wanted all parents to feel that way about their children, too.
Grandma Carmela’s motto was “It’s better to wear out doing good
deeds than to rust out doing little or nothing at all.” Being
active and making a difference, touching lives and providing the
calm, caring love that only a grandparent can give is what made
Grandma Carmela’s life extraordinary. Carmela Staropoli passed
away in 2003.