GREENFIELD — Rod Sanford leans in close, studying the words on the page.
The child beside him reads aloud at a rapid pace, his tutor listening intently to every word.
Sanford reminds the boy to slow down, not to rush his sentences.
As one of Harris Elementary School’s ReadUP tutors, Sanford helps at-risk readers sharpen their skills.
But those who know him say he is teaching students about more than reading; he is teaching them compassion for those who are different.
Sanford, 59, was diagnosed seven years ago with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The disease, which slowly breaks down muscle tissue, requires Sanford to use a wheelchair and has left him without the use of his hands.
While other tutors spend part of the session holding a book and reading to their students, Sanford depends on the young students to hold the book and turn the pages.
But Sanford’s easygoing demeanor has made it easier for the children to accept his limitations.
“I think it’s taught the kids – I don’t know what the right word is – acceptance,” Sanford said. “It’s priceless.”
The first sign of ALS crept into Sanford’s right hand in 2006. He started having trouble gripping things.
After a myriad of doctor visits, Sanford got his diagnosis about six months later.
The prognosis for an ALS patient is grim, a matter not of if but when. There is no treatment.
But Sanford made a choice in the very beginning.
“I decided early on being bitter and mad just makes everybody else miserable,” he said.
And so, he would face his illness with grace and perseverance.
As the disease progressed, Sanford retired from his job at Schreiber Lumber in Cumberland and began filling his days with volunteerism and family. He lights up when he talks about his grandkids. He and his wife of 35 years, Cyndy, have three children and four grandchildren.
Sanford was told he had between two and five years to live. He’s made it seven.
“I think they’re surprised I’m not dead, honestly,” he said with a smile.
Sanford said he does his best to remain upbeat, and when times get tough, he reaches for his Bible. Scripture has always brought him comfort.
The Book of Job especially hits home.
ReadUP coordinator Jan Panther has seen, firsthand, the challenges Sanford has faced since his diagnosis. When he began tutoring children a year ago, he walked into their classroom. By the end of the year, he needed a wheelchair to get around.
But his positivity and commitment to the program have never wavered, she said. And that’s what makes the most difference to the students he mentors, she said.
“He’ll be here unless he just absolutely can’t,” she said. “Nothing seems to stop him. His passion for the children, you can see it’s really important to him.”
Panther said she told Sanford’s students that their tutor might need some extra help, but she never emphasized his condition.
And neither did Sanford.
When he wheels through the halls, he greets children’s questions with a smile.
“They’re curious,” he said. “All the time, kids’ll walk up, and they stare, which is fine. They’ll ask me how come (I’m in a wheelchair). I say, ‘That’s because it’s fast, and it’s fun.’”
Nikolas Wilder, one of Sanford’s third-grade mentees, has a child’s understanding of Sanford’s illness.
“I know Lou Gehrig made the disease, that he got famous,” he said.
He also has a child’s acceptance.
“I just treat him like every other tutor that I have,” he said. “All the tutors I have are all nice, and he’s nice just like them.”
Nikolas, whose skills were below the standard third-grade reading level when he entered the program last September, is now reading books intended for fourth-graders.
And he recalls facts from books they read together months before, Sanford said.
Sanford depends on friends and family members for a myriad of things – getting him where he needs to go, helping him in and out of his clothing, even feeding him. Yet, helping others remains important to him.
For the grandpa who loves children, that made ReadUP a perfect fit.
“Reading’s just so fundamental to life,” he said. “I keep telling these kids if they learn to read, it’ll open up new worlds for them, and it’s a nice feeling to think you’ve helped somebody.”
Sanford said he’ll continue giving back as long as he’s able.
It might just be the reason he’s still here.
“I’d say God’s not done with me,” he said. “I told him early on this is it, so use it how you need it.”