RurAL CAP Elder Mentor Team 

Grandma Thea makes waves in Wasilla classroom


October 1, 2023 | View PDF

Courtesy RurAL CAP

Elder Mentor volunteer 'Grandma Thea' Whitehead was recognized as a Champion for Children by Mat-Su Education Association.

Did you know I'm a mermaid? I'd like everyone to know that, first and foremost.

My name is Thea Whitehead. You can call me Grandma Thea. I was born in upstate New York, but grew up in Florida. I never really liked it there-it's too hot and too humid. One of my kids and grandchild were living in Alaska, and I would come visit them. In December 1999, I made the move up and I have loved it ever since. I adore the mountains. When I'm out of the state, my stomach actually twitches and aches because I miss the mountains that much.

I remember seeing the work RurAL CAP was doing in the community and had a really good feeling about the organization. I'm so happy I joined the program and became an Elder Mentor. I volunteer in Wasilla at Iditarod Elementary. I work with preschool, kindergarten and first grade students. I love to play games with the kids. You see them learning so much and having fun at the same time. I also really enjoy eating lunch with the students. It seems more personal, you know, sharing a meal together, getting to know the students.

When I first became an Elder Mentor at Iditarod, I requested that I be called Grandma Thea. The kids picked up on that immediately and it just kind of grew. I have a wooden sign that says, "Grandma Thea," and that's what everyone calls me.

What is so special about being an Elder Mentor? It's very selfish, but it just makes you feel so good. When you reach a child and you see that little lightbulb go off, it sends chills down my back. I had one little girl who usually is chipper, but I could tell she was having trouble one day. I asked her what was wrong, and she says to me, "I just don't know what to do. I don't understand class." As I talked to her, I figured out she was having problems with numbers. I worked with her one-on-one, and gave her some tricks to remember counting. The next time I saw her, she was happy as a lark, and we kept working on numbers together. I watched her progress more and more. It is so rewarding to witness.

Now. I must tell you, yes, it is true that I am a mermaid. There is an attraction in Florida called Weeki Wachee Springs. I was there in the sixties, before and after getting married and having kids, performing as a live mermaid. It's a very unusual job-and the best job anyone could have. Eating, drinking, feeding fish, doing ballet, all underwater. And we used air hoses to breathe. I got to see the amphitheater that is there today being built underwater. If you were sitting on the bottom row of the theater, you're 16 feet below the surface of the water. The majority of the show was 30 to 40 feet underwater. I don't, however, enjoy swimming much since then because I miss my crystal-clear water. And I like knowing where every rock and cranny is. I also can scuba dive, but the tank and everything else is so cumbersome. I was featured in a film in the sixties, "The Care and Feeding of a Mermaid," which you can watch on YouTube at

I was named a Champion for Children by Mat-su Education Association, and Volunteer of the Year 2022-2023 at Iditarod Elementary, and the association hosted a wonderful dinner, celebrating all volunteers. It was lovely. I was presented with an award, and wonderful words from staff and students.

"When Grandma Thea came to Iditarod as part of RurAL CAP's Elder Mentor Program, she quickly became an essential part of our team, and even quicker, she occupied space in our hearts. Grandma Thea goes above and beyond to serve the students at Iditarod Elementary each and every day. Whether it's through helping them learn letters, playing a game, or just sitting with students during lunch, she is so caring, kind and thoughtful in her approach toward kids who truly need love the most. When you get the chance to actually sit down and chat with Grandma Thea, she'll tell you of her recent skydiving adventures or the time she spent as a mermaid. She is an educator with vast experience and expansive heart that has just blessed our students, staff and community in so many meaningful ways. Grandma Thea is a true champion for children."

And here is what the kindergarten students had to say:

"Grandma Thea is nice."

"Grandma Thea is kind."

"Grandma Thea helped me learn the letters – X, Z, A and C ... and maybe kinda all of them."

"We get to eat lunch with her on Fridays."

"It's nice that she talks to us at lunch."

"Grandma Thea is happy."

"Grandma Thea is respectful."

"Grandma Thea is Husky-Strong."

"Grandma Thea cares about us."

"Grandma Thea plays games with us like Spot-it and Kaboom."

"She looks like my real grandma."

"It's nice to have Grandma Thea at my school since my grandma isn't around anymore."

"We LOVE Grandma Thea."

Grandma Thea's Spanish Bean Soup

The home I grew up in was one of three Ruskin College buildings left following a terrible brush fire many decades ago in Ruskin, Florida, a small farming community south of Tampa. As the Arts and Dramatics building, it had one large room centered by a fireplace. (The kitchen and bathroom were subsequent add-ons and the second floor was bedrooms with beaverboard separating the rooms.) Therefore, the large family gatherings like Christmas were typically held in our home. Although my mom was an excellent cook, it was my dad who spear-headed the cooking of Spanish Bean Soup, a Cuban favorite influenced by the large Cuban population of Tampa. It began the night before the event, soaking the garbanzo beans in water with a heavy dose of baking soda (to reduce gas), then spending the hours to chop and add ingredients as the soup slowly simmered all day.

When I grew up and enjoyed gatherings with friends, I always made this soup. I would buy a nice ham to have the ham bone for the soup and sliced ham to make sandwiches. This food and was handy to keep everyone full, especially those who tended to imbibe too much. A strategy my daughters employ today. See the recipe below.

Become an Elder Mentor in your community

The Elder Mentor Program is currently accepting applications for the school year. Benefits for qualifying seniors age 55 and older include paid time off, a tax free stipend, paid holidays, free meals and travel assistance. For more information and to apply, call 907-865-7276. Check out the online interest form and learn more at If you are a school interested in having Elder Mentors volunteer in your classrooms, please contact us. You can also reach the team via e-mail at Search "Elder Mentor" on Facebook to find us there.

Spanish Bean Soup

12 oz. pkg, dried garbonzo beans

1 hambone or 2 or 3 hamhocks (with lots of lean meat)

1/4 to 1/2 lb. chorizo or pepperoni sausage

3 or 4 large cooking onions

2 or 3 large potatoes

5 or 6 cloves of garlic

3 or 4 stalks of celery

1/2 to whole pkg. of saffron

Salt and pepper.

Courtesy Thea Whitehead

Grandma Thea performing underwater as a mermaid in the 1960s in Florida.

Soak beans overnight in water with baking soda. Rinse and drain well. Start with about twice as much water as there are beans. Bring to a boil then simmer for a minimum of half a day (full day is best). Dice onions, potatoes (cut fairly large, use more to "stretch" the soup, or to tame too much salt), garlic (don't be afraid to use lots of onions and garlic), and celery. Slice sausage thin and add the saffron, salt and pepper. Add all ingredients as prepared. Taste after about 3 hours and adjust seasoning as appropriate. The soup will thicken in the last hour or so. You'll probably add water from time to time. Cuban bread is the best choice for this soup, but I do not know where to get real Cuban bread except in Tampa. Or Cuba. A light, crusty bread that gets crumbs everywhere is the goal. Enjoy!

- Grandma Thea


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