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Project Compassion

Ranee Patel

Everyone should have a friend like Gerald Roper or Hilma Jenus of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. 

While visiting a pal in a physical rehabilitation center a few years ago, Roper noticed patients were miserable in the frigid temperature.

But the center’s blankets were too large and unwieldy for many of them, in various stages of rehab. Determined to help, Roper put to use the crochet skills he’d picked up as a youngster.

He enlisted his good friend and fellow NEA-Retired member Jenus and together, they crocheted more than 30 small blankets. They dubbed their effort “The Lap Robe Project.”

When Jenus mentioned the Lap Robe Project to her Gulf Area Garden Club, they signed on to make 52 lap robes for residents at a nearby retirement home. Currently, there are 11 volunteers involved, and the Lap Robe Project has resulted in 529 donations so far. Recipients have also included a shelter for abused families and Children in Crisis, a children’s foster care facility.

Roper, a former math and science teacher, and Jenus, who taught everything from kindergarten to college, recall the touching stories they have heard in response to their generosity, “One lady always carries her lap robe around in a tote bag,” says Roper, “so that no one else will take it accidentally!”

The Lap Robe Project is an ongoing effort, and Roper and Jenus say they have every intention to keep warming the bodies and souls of those in need.

A Real-life Aquaman 

Bob Kavaliauskas has always felt at one with the water.

The Connecticut teacher spent his summer breaks as a lifeguard director and got away to Cape Cod when he could.

Years before, the Peace Corps volunteer spent his free time on Panama’s beaches. It’s “the beauty and calm,” says Kavaliauskas, that draws him.

His aquatic passion took him to Florida when he retired in 2001 after 32 years as a Spanish teacher and world languages chair. But he quickly realized that a leisurely day at the beach was not what he was looking for.

He had always wanted to learn to scuba dive, and excitedly signed up for a class with his then 28-year-old son Tomas.

Four years after receiving his certification, Kavaliauskas is now an agent at Stuart’s Cove, a leading dive center in Nassau.

“I went for an interview on my 60th birthday and began work the next day,” he says. One of his favorite duties is answering e-mails. “In a way, I’m still teaching. I really enjoy sharing the wealth of knowledge that I have about diving.”

For Kavaliauskas, he has found his dream job. “I get to use my teaching skills, sometimes my Spanish, and now I get to work with adults.” And that’s not all—Kavaliauskas gets to go on Shark Adventure Dives, which he’s done eight times so far.

His new job also fulfills his desire to travel, offering diving trips to Belize, the Exumas, and Bonaire among other locales.

He explains, “I needed some structure and working has given it to me.” Structure, and a lot of new adventures.

—Carrie Addington

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