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Drew Vanderford plays "hot hands" with a kindergartner, Dior. "It's the best way to get a smile out of them," he says with a knowing twinkle in his eyes.

Love Away From Home

story by Alycia Kravitz

"I'm head over heels about education,” says Drew Vanderford.

This passion blossomed from seeds planted by his teachers at West Kentucky State Vocational-Technical School in Paducah, where he learned woodworking and construction.

“Teachers had a love for us that you would not believe,” he says. “They saw to it that we got our education--not just in trade school, but in life.”

When Drew, 69, found himself idling at home after a long and successful career in construction, his eldest daughter, a teacher, urged him to start volunteering at a school. A profound labor of love and loyalty was born.

For five years, Drew has volunteered Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at Clark Elementary School, a schedule complicated by serious health problems that require at-home treatments. Drew feels so strongly about being there for the students that he sacrifices one day of his treatment a week, risking his personal health to teach. It if weren’t for his medical condition, he says, he would be there every day of the week.

“Mr. Vanderford is like the Chrysler Building in New York for us,” says Erin Saunders, assistant principal at Clark Elementary. “He’s become part of the scenery.”

Although Drew is too modest to admit it, she says, he plays a very important role for the students.

"He serves as a role model and mentor for lots of young people who don’t have a male influence," says Steve Ybarzabal, principal of Clark Elementary. “He’s also a great mentor for fathers and grandfathers who might not know the best way to teach.”

As the children stream into the hallway after the bell, Drew smiles.

“You’ve got to see love away from home," he says. "That kind of starts you off in life.”


The accelerated reading class meets first thing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Drew works with students for a semester and then they go back to regular class—if not, they often end up too far ahead.


"Drew makes our jobs easier. He's showing the children kindness and love and a lot of them don't get that," says Jennifer Thompson, a first grade teacher. "He's a blessing to all of us."


Drew recharges a battery inside his back. The battery is connected to two wires running up his spine that provide an electric shock to manage pain. "I'm in pain 100% of the time, 24/7" he says. "Through stimulation and medication I can control it."


Drew works with Dior, a kindergarten student, on reading exercises. Though Drew is not the only volunteer at Clark Elementary, he has become such a mainstay that he has his own area. "He's part of the family," says Robin West, Family Resource Center Coordinator. "It's very special what he does."


Cyanne Newbern, 6, is one of Drew's three grandchildren at Clark Elementary. He chose to volunteer at Clark to be able to spend more time with them, but as Anissa Johnson, guidance counselor, explains: "He treats them all like they are his grandchildren."


Drew spreads out cards from students in his home in Brookport, Illinois as his wife, Cheryl, looks on. "All of the awards mean a lot and I appreciate it," he says, refering to the numerous local and national accolades he has received for his service, including the Points of Light award in 2014. "But this is what means the most to me."


Drew looks up from reading thank you notes from students. "I'm proud but humbled by it," he says. "This is my pay."


Drew prays before his meal in the cafeteria at Clark Elementary. "I feel like God has put me here to give back," he says.


"The man is completely amazing," says Kym Mizell, a Specials and Science teacher at Clark Elementary who will retire after this year. "He commands respect without being commanding. If I can grow up to be like that, well, I'll love it."

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