Years passed before some at the Dakota County Juvenile Services Center knew Mary Monahan’s first name. The oversight did not offend her.
“Everybody calls her Grandma,” said Martin Miser, a supervisor at the center.
For 16 years, Monahan, a former state DFL chairwoman from Eagan, has been “Grandma Mary” to the young offenders who have passed through the county’s juvenile detention center.
Most days find her there for roughly four hours, sitting at lunch tables or otherwise shadowing young people — an effort, both she and officials say, to put the kids in touch with someone other than an authority.
“It’s provided them with someone different,” Miser said. “Someone who can come show that they care, be involved with their life, lend a soft hand or hug and listen to them.”
Monahan is one of 425 “foster grandparents” in a Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota program that puts them in touch with children around the state. Unlike her peers, Monahan is the only volunteer to provide services at a correctional facility, said John Bringewatt, director of LSS’ Senior Corps program.
Monahan’s involvement is the latest in a series of volunteer efforts peppered throughout her life, the last 57 years of which were spent in Eagan with her husband. Monahan volunteered at her local church, her DFL leadership was preceded by years of volunteering and she has helped out at St. Paul’s Dorothy Day Center.
The Dakota County Juvenile Services Center hit Monahan’s radar not long after the center advertised a request for volunteers when it opened in Hastings in the 1990s.
“I just kind of felt that sometimes they never had a chance,” Monahan said of juvenile offenders.
She now says she hears from some of the those with whom she first came in contact years ago: One boy had gone on to college; another is married with three kids. Questions about others fill in the gaps.
“I think a lot about some of the kids,” Monahan said. “I wonder how they’re doing, if they’re in prison. Just mostly hoping that someday they find the right way to go.”
She said some of the kids she encounters arrive scared, in tears. She tells them it will be OK and offers up a hug.
“Mary has just a unique gift of walking into a room and exuding warmth,” Bringewatt said. “She doesn’t want to know what got them in there, she just wants to meet them where they’re at and bring some humanity to a setting where they’re scared.”
Monahan tells the story of a boy who recently got into a fight. “You’re better than that,” she advised. He told her no one had ever suggested that to him. To Monahan, she’s not doing anything but be a listener.
Said Sarah Reetz, the center’s deputy director: “That’s more than a lot of them have.”