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Poppa Belly Floppa Gives ‘That Special Love’


At Central Elementary School, the spontaneity on the playground pings around grandparent Ernie Sandona, who’s at the center of the dance. His grandson, third-grader Evan Mann, and his friends clamor for the football, running and throwing, catching and celebrating.

Right away, Sandona orchestrates an environment that prioritizes fair play and teamwork.

“Alright, who hasn’t had a turn yet?” Sandona says, and chuckles when every hand shoots up. “Now listen, if the ball hits your hand, what do I always say?” Replies Evan, “Then you should have caught it.”

Powered by Parents is a series highlighting the parents, grandparents and other family members who give their time in schools to help students and teachers do their best.

Sandona watches everything, inquiring about the whereabouts of one youngster’s spectacles, steadying a young miss who nearly toppled rounding a corner, and blowing his whistle at two students jostling on the playground equipment even while noticing a great catch. “Nice!” he exclaims.

Grandparent Ernie Sandona, a weekly volunteer at Central Elementary, says he loves to see children flourish
Grandparent Ernie Sandona, a weekly volunteer at Central Elementary, says he loves to see children flourish

As a weekly for four years volunteer, Sandona’s “given hours of time and the kids adore him,” says Principal Angela Thornburgh. The social value of parental volunteering, she adds, establishes “a community of learners, that builds ongoing connections that are very important for our continued growth, improvement and support for one another.”

The students call him “Papa Belly Floppa,” shortened to PBF, the nickname his grandson affectionately gave him when he introduced Sandona to his classmates for the first time in kindergarten.

“Well,” Evan explains, “around our house, we call him Papa Belly Floppa.” Apparently nobody executes a belly flop in the pool quite like his grandpa.

Evan’s mom, Emily Mann, a district teacher who runs the Transition Program for Young Adults, encouraged her father to volunteer in her son’s school. Since Evan’s kindergarten year, Sandona has volunteered in the lunchroom, playground and in the classroom, helping struggling students keep up with their classmates.

“Kids love grandparents I think because they can get away with so much more,” says Sandona, who also volunteers at God’s Kitchen weekly. “But really grandparents just give that special love. The main thing is watching the kids — who might be having a hard time — really flourish.

“It warms you right up.”

Grandparent Ernie Sandona, a playground volunteer, huddles with Central Elementary School students
Grandparent Ernie Sandona, a playground volunteer, huddles with Central Elementary School students

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