By Valerie Franchi
Shrewsbury – When Shrewsbury resident Robert Mersereau retired 10 years ago, “I needed a new sense of purpose,” he said. Little did he know then that, at 71, his new “career” as a volunteer would bring him much more than that.
In August, Mersereau was among those awarded the annual Presidential Volunteer Service Award for his work as a Citizen Schools Citizen Teacher. He received the highest level gold award for teaching all four of the previous four semesters. Earlier in the year, he was also selected as Citizens Schools’ Citizen Teacher of the Year for 2014-2015.
Citizen Schools is a national nonprofit organization that partners with middle schools to expand the learning day for children in low-income communities.
“I was amazed at how much I learned and got satisfaction from teaching these kids,” Mersereau said.
He joined Citizen Schools more than seven years ago, and in that time he has taught more than any other volunteers in Massachusetts – 26 classes at 10 different schools.
“I’m the champ,” he joked. “No one is going to catch up with me.”
While he is not one to self-promote, Mersereau said he understands the reasoning behind the recognition.
“It’s against my nature to accept praise,” he said, “but I had to be willing to. It serves the purpose of inspiring others to volunteer. I am proud that they are inspired by me, not only me being inspired by them.”
The course he teaches, “Kids Capture the Universe,” fuels his passion for space and astronomy. The program was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University as an afterschool program for high school students in Roxbury. Mersereau worked with them to pare down the program for middle-schoolers.
Each semester, one day a week for 10 weeks, Mersereau has presented the 90-minute class at middle schools in the Boston area, commuting to New Bedford, Chelsea and Dorchester among others.
“I put myself in their hands,” he said. “I told them to put me where you need me.”
His class is more of an apprenticeship program, in which students get hands-on learning. At the end of the course, they must present what they have learned to an audience of parents, teachers and other students.
“Giving youngsters experiences and using that experience to teach others – that is the essence of Citizen Schools,” Mersereau remarked. “Regardless of the subject you are teaching, you are giving them experience. It’s more about the learning process. You are really learning about yourself.”
Mersereau has lived in Shrewsbury for more than 30 years with his wife Marie. They have a son and daughter and two grandchildren. His son, Robert Jr. also participates in teaching the classes for Citizen Schools.
Although he has a background in teaching – he taught earth science in Medford – the bulk of his work has been in information technology and operating his own business – an embroidery shop – in Fitchburg. He sold the business 10 years ago when he retired.
Currently, in addition to being a Citizen Teacher, he is a member of the Aldrich Astronomical Society in Worcester, and volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club of Leominster, Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston and the Veterans’ Center at Salem State University, where he attended college.
His advice for those who want to try volunteering: “Find an organization that uses everything you’ve got – experience, passion, intellect and commitment. If you are willing to put in everything you’ve got, you will get double back.”
Mersereau will be starting his latest teaching assignment soon in Salem and has no plans to stop passing on his knowledge to students. In fact, he hopes to develop a new program with the help of MIT and Harvard. And since he will be teaching in Salem, near his alma mater, he plans to spend more time volunteering at the Veterans’ Center there.
For him, the recent recognition only reinforces his satisfaction with his work and family life.
“I consider myself the luckiest guy on the planet,” he said.
For more information about Citizen Schools, visit http://www.citizenschools.org.