Class Act: Seniors Sharing Wisdom, Talents With Young Learners

The Fargo School District benefits from the labor and time of volunteers in most of its buildings. Many of those volunteers are parents, and help out through a PTA, PTSA, or PTO. Others, a small number of them senior citizens, come to the schools through agencies and community organizations.

Two organizations that facilitate volunteer opportunities for senior citizens in the Fargo Schools are the Senior Corps and the South East Education Cooperative, or SEEC. Neither organization requires prior work experience in education – just a weekly time commitment, and the desire to work with children.

Karen Bodelson (pictured above) is a Literacy Aide at Washington Elementary, placed at the school through the “SEECing Student Progress” (SSP) initiative. SSP is a regional effort that uses AmeriCorps programming and volunteers to help students who need that extra push reach their grade-level reading benchmark. Bodelson learned about the program three years ago through a newspaper article. A former educator and clerical worker, she works individually in scheduled daily sessions with students for a few or up to several weeks, depending on that student’s progress and need.

During her time with students, Bodelson says she sees them begin to come out of the shell that a reading deficiency can create. “They become less afraid to participate. More chatty,” she says. “And their self-confidence improves. I try to let them know, let them see their progress, so they know they’re doing better.”

SEEC’s SSP initiative has two time commitment options for volunteers – 20 or 25 hour per week. These options come with a $400 or $600 monthly stipend, respectively. SSP itself is not limited to senior citizens – any adult may volunteer through the program. Bodelson is one of 10 SSP volunteers across seven buildings in the Fargo Public Schools. Other SSP volunteers also work in the Jamestown and West Fargo School Districts, which are also SEEC members.

Ruth Miller (below, at right) is one of two Senior Corps “Foster Grandparent” volunteers at Roosevelt Elementary, placed at the campus through the Northeast Human Services Center in Grand Forks. The Foster Grandparent program, like its SEEC counterpart, uses adults to tutor students, but also to help out with other classroom or building tasks as necessary. Miller, whose nickname is “Nana” to those at Roosevelt, spends a minimum of 15 hours a week assisting teacher Jane Spooner with students in her resource room. She also helps out as a lunchroom worker, and with other miscellaneous tasks, such as making copies, delivering items to classrooms, or simply being that “extra set of hands.”

“It’s nice to have her,” says Spooner, whose students’ daily visits to the resource room last from 10 minutes to 2 hours. “If I see a student struggling, I can have her go help them, and there’s an immediate response.” Miller said that her volunteer experience in Spooner’s class has allowed her to incorporate some of Spooner’s methods in her daily interactions with students.

Income-eligible Foster Grandparents like Miller are paid $2.65 per hour, non-taxed, for their time (between 15-40 hours). They also receive transportation to their site (or mileage reimbursement) and a noon meal.

For Miller, who previously volunteered through the senior companion program and who has a grandchild at Roosevelt, the school experience has been a good fit. “I wanted to be someplace where I could be busy and necessary – not just to watch people do stuff,” she says.

While the idea of a daily commitment may frighten some potential volunteers away, Bodelson says that the experience gives back to those who take part in it.

“It gives you a boost,” she says. “You can’t have a bad day when the kid comes running in, and tells you about their new shoes, or something else in their life. You can’t have a bad day when they’re smiling at you.”

Additional information on the SEEC SSP program can be found on SEEC’s website, or by contacting Volunteer Coordinator Jolene Garty, at 446-3173.

For information on the Senior Corps Foster Grandparents program, visit the program page on the Senior Corps website, or contact Coordinator Karen Hillman, at (701) 795-3118.