While we often think of parents preparing their children for the school year and teachers organizing their lesson plans at this time of year, I want to call attention to another group of people who, for the past 17 years, have looked forward to another school year with just as much anticipation: the Learning Buddies volunteers who grace our classrooms every fall.

Since 1997, the Learning Buddies program, facilitated by the nonprofit organization DARTS, has connected older adults with elementary students in Dakota County schools. These volunteers have touched the lives of more than 41,000 children, leading reading groups, reinforcing learned material, and providing extra math and science practice to students.

The program has made an invaluable difference in our community, providing more than 75,000 hours in volunteer time since 1997, donating the equivalent of $114,000 during the 2013-2014 school year alone, and contributing to a double-digit percent gain in reading and math proficiency. But the true value of what these volunteers provide is their relationships with our students.

Learning Buddies volunteers connect with the students they are helping beyond simple academics. They bring smiles, positive attitudes and encouragement, and provide critical individualized attention that a single teacher leading a full classroom often cannot achieve. Their presence builds confidence in children who often lack it, and that unfailingly translates into improved academic achievement. Lesson reinforcement and extra practice are a big part of what these volunteers do, but the bonds they build with our young students are just as meaningful.

The Learning Buddies program is a true collaboration fueled by support from our local business community. Flint Hills Resources, in particular, has given more than half a million dollars since the program’s onset. I am thrilled to welcome Learning Buddies volunteers back for another school year, and I hope that older adults in the Twin Cities looking to make a true impact on children’s lives will explore the program. Visit www.darts1.org/learningbuddies or call 651-455-1560 for more information.

John Garcia is principal of Cedar Park Elementary in Apple Valley.