“I learn from the kids. We’re like family,” says 76-year-old Foster Grandparent Joe Mattox, Papa Joe. He tutors elementary-age students at Wilson Focus School three days a week. “I tell the kids all the time, ‘You’re going to be one of the smartest kids in the school.’ ”

Fearlessly. That’s how Joe Mattox, 76, served his country as a communications specialist in the U.S. Air Force, his community as an Omaha firefighter for 25 years, and now, the next generation as a deeply dedicated Foster Grandparent.

“I love what I’m doing,” Mattox says. “It gives me purpose in life.”

“Papa Joe” to the students he interacts with – sometimes a dozen a day – Mattox has been with the Foster Grandparents program since 2002. It’s a national effort funded by the Corporation for National Service and local sponsor the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging (ENOA).

Involved five days a week, Mattox splits his time between Wilson Focus School in Omaha (Monday through Wednesday) and Immanuel Medical Center’s Mental Health Services (Thursday and Friday).

“I help the kids with spelling. I help them with math and science. I am with them every day for recess,” he says of his routine at Wilson school. “It makes you feel good to see these kids excel. I tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid of failing because if you don’t fail you ain’t doing a darn thing.’ ”

Straight-talker Mattox caught an article about the program in ENOA’s New Horizons publication, realized he fit the bill and applied. His drive is love, a word he uses often.

“Love to me ain’t what you say, it’s what you do.”

“I just love people.”

“I love working with people.”

Currently, 66 Foster Grandparent volunteers are serving in 53 different “stations” in Douglas, Sarpy and Dodge Counties, including public schools and Head Start programs, Boys and Girls Clubs and The Hope Center for Kids.

“Our program goal, simply stated, is to bring seniors and children together for the benefit of both,” says Tia Schoenfeld, program specialist for the Foster Grandparent Program.

Foster Grandparents provide that extra boost – individual attention, companionship, academic and emotional support – to children needing some special attention. In return, the volunteers receive a tax-free stipend of $2.65 per hour, a mileage reimbursement, an annual health screening and supplemental accidental insurance coverage. Add to that the intangibles of staying active, both physically and mentally.

Recess duty is part of Joe Mattox’s routine at Wilson Focus School, 5141 F St. He’s been a foster grandparent since 2002 in a national program funded by the Corporation for National Service and local sponsor the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska counts Mattox among those in our state living fearless and inspiring others to do the same.

“We’re benefiting the kids, but it’s also benefiting us,” Mattox says. “I learn so much from the kids, and they learn so much from me.”

Schoenfeld says, “That’s why I think Joe and all the other volunteers do it – because they know they’re making a difference not only in the child’s life but their own.”

Bret Anderson, principal at Wilson Focus School, likes the diversity Papa Joe brings to the staff. “It is nice to have an African-American male,” he says. “The students need this, especially when we stress diversity.”

Mattox, who has three grown daughters, retired from the Omaha Fire Department in 1992. He puts in full days at Wilson Focus School and Immanuel, working from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. He’s part of the team at both places, he says. And the kids he impacts are his extended family. “All these kids want to know is how much you care,” he says.

Papa Joe is demonstrating that five days a week, sharing his experience and wisdom, planting seeds of empowerment — and even joining the kids in a mid-morning movement routine.

“Some of the kids say, ‘Papa Joe, you’ve done a lot of things. I want to be like you.’ I say, ‘No, be yourself. Be original. It’s hard being a copy.’ ”