A generational connection

Sandie Titera, top left, made Star Wars masks for everyone in Erin Gross’ class and a Yoda piñata (bottom) as well.

Top row: Afrah Mohamed, former volunteer. Rita Schnoor, 1 year. Mary Qiblawi, 3 years Middle row: Eileen Voth, 5 years. Ethel Nasland, former volunteer. (Right) Lynn Koshenina, 1 year. Bottom row: Dale Turnham, 9 years. Joan Getz, 4 years. Sandie Titera, 7 years.

Program helping local children celebrates milestone

In 1997, two people had an idea about how to meet the needs of local schools by using senior volunteers. 

They organized a handful of older folks to go into the grade schools to help youngsters with their reading comprehension. 

Now the program they founded is making preparations to mark its 20th anniversary and celebrate the many positive impacts its volunteers have made in Dakota County.


20 years of change

When it began in 1997, the program was called Reading Buddies. Anne Kalb, the social worker at Glacier Hills Elementary, and Rita Younger, a former DARTS employee, began talking about some of the gaps that needed to be filled in local schools and how they could help. 

 “They came up with the Reading Buddies program. They recruited 10 volunteers in the community to help students with reading for that school year,” said Erin Walloch, Learning Buddies coordinator at DARTS, a social service agency based in West St. Paul.

As the first year progressed, those students who spent time with the volunteers were getting better at reading, and teachers began noticing they were improving in other subjects as well. 

Walloch said beyond the academic progress, the intergenerational connections and rapport were so good, that the teachers asked all the volunteers to come back the following school year.

In 2005, Reading Buddies was expanded to include math and science and renamed Learning Buddies. When Walloch became the coordinator in 2012, there were 25 elementary partnerships with roughly 70 volunteers.

“Since I came on board, we’ve now partnered with 46 elementary schools throughout Dakota and into Scott County, and we have about 135 Learning Buddies in those schools,” Walloch said.   

These equal out to about 88,000 hours volunteered by the buddies. 

Even though the program has expanded and the number of participating schools has grown, the original goal remains the same.

“It’s really to [connect] community members with elementary students to support their reading, math and science skills, and become an intergenerational friend,” Walloch said.

While a lot has changed, Learning Buddies continue to focus on elementary-school kids. Academic research shows the importance of tackling the achievement gap in the early grades by improving reading and math skills. For instance, if kids are struggling with reading comprehension at the end of third grade, chances are good that middle school will be an uphill battle for them, Walloch said.

Getting to students early can help make sure they have a positive experience throughout their school years, Walloch explained.

Walloch said she has often heard it’s challenging for teachers to spend one-on-one time with every single students. 

“If a Learning Buddy can volunteer and spend that time working one-on-one with those students, then they can get that extra support during the day that the teacher often is not able to do with the entire class,” Walloch said.

Many volunteers come back year after year because they see the support they give to students makes a difference.


A mutually beneficial partnership

Since 2010, Sandie Titera has been volunteering at Kaposia Education Center.

“I saw an ad in the newspaper and didn’t do it right away, but I clipped it out,” Titera said. “When I was ready to do it, I just called because I always thought there was a need [in the schools] for volunteers.”

She has been helping teacher Erin Gross with her students. Up until this academic year, Gross was teaching second-graders but followed her previous class to third grade this year.

Gross said she began having a Learning Buddy volunteer doing reading work with a couple different kids for maybe 30 minutes once a week.

The volunteer tutoring was so beneficial, Gross was open to more help. Now there are weeks when Titera is working with Gross’ students every day.

“As we’ve gotten to know each other, we just kind of communicate a whole lot more, and we collaborate and come up with ideas of different things she can do and how she can contribute,” Gross said.

Titera helps in other ways as well. Often she is the first grownup the kids will ask questions or request permission to use the restroom. Gross said the students know they don’t always have to interrupt her in the middle of a lesson to make a restroom request.

Besides helping with reading and math, Titera also sews snow pants to keep on hand for those students who may have forgotten to bring theirs to school and otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to play in the snow during recess. 

Titera also creates piñatas.

She came up with the idea after finding out she couldn’t bake treats and serve them to the youngsters. 

The piñatas always have a theme or academic component to them. One time a piñata was filled with erasers that had words on them. Students broke into groups and had to create a sentence with the words on the erasers.

Gross said the students don’t just benefit academically from having Titera in the room. It helps them form a relationship with another adult they can trust. If Gross has to step out of the classroom or is absent, the students still have a familiar person in the room to help them feel safe.

The primary focus, though, is always to help students master their lessons. Titera recalled the time a boy was struggling with reading and always reluctant to read individually with her. 

One day the teacher asked who wanted to read aloud, and the student’s hand went up right away.

“I know I had turned him around, and that he could have success with reading” in the future, Titera said happily.

Walloch said this program helps senior volunteers maintain their self-esteem and make a positive difference in others’ lives. Many are retired, older adults, but some are new retirees who want to give their time in a meaningful way.

Walloch makes school visits during the winter months and sees the volunteers in action. “I always leave with a smile on my face, and I’m just an observer.” 

Being a Learning Buddy also helps older adults to not feel isolated, something that can be detrimental to their health. The Learning Buddies program offers transportation to those who don’t have it.

There’s still time to sign up to volunteer for the 2016-17 school year. Walloch usually makes matches through January and after that will then look at placing volunteers in summer programs or in schools for the next academic year. Those interested in volunteering can visit http://www.darts1.org/learningbuddies.

Titera recommends that folks who are considering becoming a Learning Buddy volunteer, think about the positive impact they can make in students’ lives.

“If they’re successful in their school life and their school work, I think it transfers over and they will be successful in their social environment and their future,” Titera said.


Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.


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