Ora Rakestraw, a beloved classroom volunteer who spent 35 years improving learning and life for Sacramento schoolchildren, died May 31 after a recent stroke, her family said. She was 94.
Ms. Rakestraw, who gave up her dream of being a teacher when she married and became a mother as a teenager, found a second chance as a volunteer with the Foster Grandparent Program. She joined in Chicago and continued her service after settling in Sacramento in 1978.
She volunteered at juvenile hall and the Children's Receiving Home of Sacramento and tutored students in reading at elementary schools. For about the last 25 years, she made a difference in the lives of thousands of third-graders at Woodridge Elementary School as "Grandma Ora."
Sitting behind a special "Grandma Desk," she read to children and listened to them read in one-on-one sessions. She helped them sound out and spell words. She coached them on vocabulary, phonics and punctuation.
Ms. Rakestraw combined learning with a genuine love for children. She asked withdrawn youngsters about problems at home and offered encouragement. She checked in with former students who had moved to higher grades. She settled playground disputes and preached responsibility.
A cheerful woman with an infectious smile, she greeted youngsters with hugs and said goodbye with a joyful, "I love your bones!"
"Kids would walk by her desk while she was teaching another student, and they would just lay their heads on her back," said Dennis Brodsky of the Sacramento Foster Grandparent Program. "They all wanted to be with her."
Ms. Rakestraw, who put in more than 35,000 hours as a foster grandparent, also raised money for several years for Human Race, a physical activity program for children. She was active in many programs at New Testament Baptist Church in Sacramento.
She received many honors for her service. In 2006, she traveled to Washington to receive the MetLife Foundation Older Volunteers Enrich America Award. She returned as a finalist in 2012.
Born Aug. 9, 1918, in Birmingham, Ala., Ora Foster married at 16 in hopes that being a wife and mother would save her from a life picking cotton and corn in the South. But her marriage fell apart, and she raised three children as a single mother in Chicago.
While working in a laundry, she opened her home to three sisters as a foster parent, including one whom she adopted. After her children were grown, she volunteered at a hospital and with the Foster Grandparent Program before moving to Sacramento.
Ms. Rakestraw spent four hours a day four days a week at Woodridge. She lived in Carmichael and was preparing for school when she had a stroke, her son Frederick said.
"I love it here," she told The Bee in a 2003 interview at Woodridge. "It is what I always wanted to do. As long as I can, I will be doing this."
Ms. Rakestraw was predeceased by a daughter, Edna Ruth Parrish. She is survived by three children, Louis of Citrus Heights, Frederick of Fair Oaks, and Yvette of the Los Angeles area; a brother, David Foster of Birmingham, Ala.; nine grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren; and seven great-great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is set for 10 a.m. Friday at New Testament Baptist Church, 6746 34th St., Sacramento. Donations in memory of Ms. Rakestraw may be made to the Sacramento Foster Grandparent Program.
Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.