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A volunteer you should know

Julian Underwood on the playground at Briarwood Elementary.

There's a constant need for outside help at high-poverty schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district. For various reasons, it's been a struggle to get parents to volunteer their time. But at one school in northeast Charlotte, a loyal volunteer has been a fixture for more than two decades. WFAE's Simone Orendain has this profile of Julian Underwood, the volunteer extraordinaire at Briarwood Elementary. Long before school starts at 8:30, Julian Underwood's trim, six-foot frame stands sentinel at the front doors of Briarwood Elementary. "Good morning!" he says with a smile. Underwood is 87-years old. And every morning you'll find him greeting every single person who comes in. He even has his own mailbox in the teacher's lounge. "Morning Ms. Ingrams," he says. Underwood's really on top of things when it comes to the rules. His bright eyes scan the entrance to the cafeteria. Students holding breakfast bags thunder out of the cafeteria in a cluster- unattended. He says, "They're supposed to line up" It's clear he loves these kids. Not only that, he's instrumental to the schools' daily function. Just ask Briarwood Principal Brenda Steadman. "I don't know what I'll do without him!" exclaims Steadman. "He's just a tremendous asset to the school. He brings a lot of experience, a lot of history to our school. He loves being here. Our children love him and he knows how to step in when there are gaps." Sounding like a long-time educator, Underwood tells me Briarwood is a Title One school- or high poverty school. Eighty-six percent of students received a free or reduced price lunch. And just 38 percent of them are on grade level. "A lot of these children are in a home where there's no father figure," he explains. "You know just a mother raising the children. I've had them come up to me and say, 'Mr. Underwood, do you love me?'" One student walks through the doors and greets Underwood with a hug. He says it's still early in the year, but in a few months he'll be giving those more often. Underwood came to Briarwood 22 years ago. That was right after he retired from his job as a commercial loan administrator at Nations Bank. "I could just sit, sit at home and I guess just be retired and as they say decay. But it gives you something to do and I look forward to it," he says. Briarwood is his neighborhood school. It's less than a mile from his home. But more importantly, Underwood wanted to volunteer to make up for a long-ago dream. "I wanted to go - I wanted to go to college and be a school teacher. But when I came along it was the depression. There was no money." Underwood finished high school at the top of his class but couldn't afford college. After two years in the Army he landed a bookkeeping job at Nations Bank, now Bank of America. Upon retirement, he started off volunteering at Briarwood reading to first graders within two years he was in charge of the school's grounds. He planted perennials and trimmed the bushes. "I kept all the beds in tiptop shape. I kept all the leaves out of it, did all the pruning, did all this." But this school year, Underwood stopped working outside. "I just realized it, I can't do it anymore. I don't have the strength to do it. I can't bend up and down on my knees." So far a corporate volunteer group showed up to volunteer at the school, and he clearly wasn't impressed with their effort. Still, if it's not hard labor you can count on him coming in every day just before six, unlocking every classroom door, relaying messages to staff and working the front door until nine. Then he goes home for a break and returns to serve lunch to the children from 10:30 to 12:30. Briarwood has a playground because of Underwood. In the mid-90s a $12,000 grant was available to pay for the playground. To get it Underwood had to promise 1,200 hours in sweat equity. He thought he'd get it from volunteers but no one showed up- so he did all the work himself. It took him six months. "I just love everybody up here. I love this school. I have a passion for these children and I want to do that. As long as I've got my health I plan to be right here! I told them they're going to have to run me off and they won't. No way!" he says with a laugh. For the past nine years he has awarded $500 bonds to two exemplary fifth graders- one for a boy and one for a girl. He's always hopeful their parents will save the money for their college so they could have the opportunity he never had.