The DARTS Learning Buddies program matches senior volunteers with youngsters in local schools.
At the start of the school year, volunteer Laurel Venhuizen takes a class of kindergartners under her wing. She reads to each child one on one, helping them unlock the wonders found in books and stories.
By year's end, they're reading to her.
"I just love little ones when they're starting from home and kind of out of the nest. It's just so exciting to know little people that age," gushed Venhuizen, who has worked with students at Kaposia Education Center in South St. Paul for nearly a decade.
Venhuizen is one of nearly 100 Learning Buddies committed to helping Dakota County children improve their reading, math and science skills.
They often do it one child at a time, perched in school hallways and libraries. Students slip out of the classroom each week and spend a few precious minutes relishing a kind adult's undivided attention.
Learning Buddies volunteers, educators and organizers celebrated their 15th year last week. DARTS, a Dakota County nonprofit that works to enrich aging, founded the program at one Eagan school in 1997.
Since its inception, the program has expanded to 28 Dakota County elementary schools. Flint Hills Resources, which operates the Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemount, has sponsored the program since its start.
"It's a win-win-win. The kids love the volunteers. The teachers love the help," said Jo Lynn Bucki, Learning Buddies coordinator. "The volunteers, once they get into the schools, it's the highlight of their week. They have 20 kids who love and adore them."
Learning Buddies teach core skills and inspire confidence in children at all skill levels.
"Some might be struggling with their reading or math skills and need that boost," Bucki said. "Then, there are some gifted students who benefit from that one-on-one time as well."
Volunteers undergo a background check, an interview process and training before they're placed in a school close to home.
"It's important for volunteers to be volunteering in their neighborhood," Bucki said.
Volunteers also receive ongoing training and support.
Teachers decide how to best use their Learning Buddies and in end-of-year surveys comment that the volunteers do help improve student performance, Bucki said.
First-grade teacher Karen Colbert said the one-on-one reading time is invaluable for her students. Colbert has worked with the same two Learning Buddies for years at Glacier Hills Elementary School of Arts and Science in Eagan.
"I can't say enough good things about it," Colbert said. "They brought encouragement. They brought praise, and they really formed a special bond with my children each year. My children really look forward to reading with them."
"Grandma Maureen" Cannon has worked with Colbert's students for 15 years. The students she first tutored are now in college. Cannon, a retired social worker, was one of the program's pioneers. She selected first grade because children often view it as their first year of "real school."
"They are just so excited about being in real school, and yet they are untainted. They are fresh and open to everything," Cannon said.
Cannon said it's thrilling to see the changes and growth during the course of the school year, as their language and reasoning skills blossom.
"I am so intrigued by children at that age learning to use expression and to look ahead in the sentence," Cannon said. "By this time at the end of the year they are reading chapter books and the comprehension is great. They are guessing what will happen next."
Volunteers say the children's enthusiasm and gratitude bring them back year after year.
"We are not supposed to initiate hugs, but we can return them. I really love the hugs that go along with the job," Venhuizen said.
For more about the Learning Buddies program, go to www.darts1.org or call 651-455-1560.
Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.