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Published January 11 2010

Granny-for-hire: Seniors volunteer in the classroom

Joan Grefsrud doesn’t wield “fancy techniques” – just the patience she cultivated reading with her 12 grandchildren.

Still, the octogenarian is part of a small but important brigade fending for Hawley (Minn.) Elementary School’s reading program, which out-performs most area districts on standardized tests.

Grefsrud is one of three “foster grandparents,” volunteers in an initiative that lines up help for area classrooms. Shuttling between seven classrooms, she listens to fledgling readers, reminds them to honor periods, pronounces tricky words for them and collects hugs in return.

“The teachers don’t have time to read with each child,” Grefsrud says, “so it’s nice to have somebody spend time with them and make them feel special.”

The national Foster Grandparent Program has supplied senior helpers to classrooms for decades. But it’s recently become especially relevant in budget-challenged Minnesota, where class sizes have swelled and the ranks of paraprofessionals shrunk.

Local coordinators at Crookston’s Tri-Valley Opportunity Council are stepping up recruitment efforts. Whereas interest in the program has been steady in smaller rural districts, it never caught on in the metro area. The program has also lowered the minimum age to participate from 60 to 55.

The northwest Minnesota program has 85 volunteers, including one with almost two-decades-long tenure and several who are just shy of 90 years old. Most participants are eligible for a tax-free $2.65-an-hour stipend; they receive free transportation and meals. But volunteers say they get much more out of the gigs.

“If I were at home, I’d probably be lazy; I’d sit down and watch the soaps,” says Lois Brooks, 73, who helps out in a kindergarten classroom at Moorhead’s Ellen Hopkins Elementary.

Instead, Brooks reads stories, ties shoes, plays educational games and comforts youngsters on grumpy days.

“The first day she came in, it was total chaos,” teacher Joelle Hofer says about Brooks’ debut this past fall. “She walked in and said, ‘I’m Grandma Lois. What can I do to help?’ ”

The unflappable great-grandma of 29 quickly made friends with a boy with a leg cast and persevered through a two-hour-long crying-for-home marathon. She’s since expanded her circle of fans.

Thanks to “Grandma Lois,” who helps Hofer carve out smaller groups in class, “We can play lots of games,” Ella Grafstrom says. What’s more, “She mostly picks the best games, always the ones I like,” Noah Skatvold says.

These days, extra classroom help comes especially handy in Minnesota. Norman County West Superintendent Ollen Church says the district has trimmed its para team even as the number of children with special needs has shot up. Though they can’t completely make up for the loss of trained professionals, the district’s three grandmas have helped.

“The foster grandparents have been stepping up and filling in for some of the people we’ve had to let go,” Church says.

The program has had success enlisting volunteers in some communities – 11 in Crookston, six in tiny Foston. But Brooks is the only classroom grandma in Moorhead, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton and Barnesville.

It’s an issue in North Dakota, as well: More than 80 seniors participate in eastern North Dakota; only three of them are in Fargo. “In some of those larger communities, it seems harder to convince people to try it,” says program Director Karen Hillman.

Demars says her team is not entirely sure whether it’s the abundance of volunteer opportunities in the metro or the distance from the Crookston home base.

But she hopes a lower minimum age of 55 and her recruiting efforts will reverse the shortage. She’s logged in visits to area senior centers and churches and distributed fliers at gas stations, libraries and post offices.

“The volunteers get much more out of it than the students sometimes,” coordinator Heidi Demars says. “And they have a lifetime of experience to share with the kids.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529