When it comes to story time, Geri Hetterick is an expert. Better known to South St. Paul kids as Granny Goose, Hetterick has been reading to children in full Mother Goose costume for nearly two decades.

Each month, Hetterick and a team of other volunteers with the Read Across South St. Paul program visit local classrooms, picture books in hand.

"It's a special event," said Hetterick, 79, who started dressing up to read to students when her daughter was a kindergarten teacher at Lincoln Center Elementary. "By doing this, it takes me out of character because I can do anything and say anything."

On the first Friday morning in February, Hetterick is one of 12 volunteer readers visiting the South St. Paul schools. She starts the day by stopping in at the school office to get her assigned room number. Then she's off to class, walking with brisk certainty.

When Hetterick, who grew up in South St. Paul and now lives in Eagan, started reading to students, her visits to Lincoln were informal.

But in 2002, the school district and the city government launched Read Across South St. Paul, a program that brings volunteer readers into the district's elementary schools. It started as part of Read Across America, a national effort to celebrate reading each March on Dr. Seuss' birthday. Instead of bringing readers in only once a year, South St. Paul decided to host readings the first Friday of every month.

Volunteer effort

As Hetterick heads into class, 21 first-graders are packing up from show-and-tell, taking their treasures back to their desks. Soon they have gathered in a circle around Hetterick's feet, awaiting a story from Granny Goose.

Deb Griffith, who coordinates the program for the City of South St. Paul, said many of the readers who started the first year are still volunteering, and they've picked up new people over the years. Most volunteers are retired people from the community, but there are also readers who take the morning off work to come in.

In peak months, Read Across South St. Paul has about 25 volunteers, but numbers dip when the temperature drops — especially among the retirees.

"We lose some in the winter months because they go to Florida or Arizona, but then they come back," Griffith said.

Some volunteers adopt a class to read to all year long. Others read to classes where they know the teacher or where their grandchildren are students.

Teachers who are interested in the program request readers, and Griffith sends volunteers to as many classrooms as possible. She starts with the youngest classes first, but classes all the way up to sixth grade occasionally request readers.

Granny Goose only reads to students through second grade, because the charm of the costume wears thin with older students, Hetterick said.

Monthly themes

Each month, coordinators choose a theme for Read Across South St. Paul, and Amy Commers, the children's librarian at the South St. Paul Public Library, checks out a selection of books for the volunteers to read. In February, they focused on transportation.

"We're talking about travel, transportation, cars, buses, trains, bicycles," said Hetterick, who always brings a book from home, where she has a stash of at least 60 picture books.

As Granny Goose sat down in front of her class, she pulled a book called "Abuela" out of her bag. Hetterick stretched the limits of February's theme because "Abuela" is about a fantasy mode of transportation: flight.

The book tells the story of a little girl named Rosalba, who goes to the park with her grandmother. As they watch the birds fly overhead, Rosalba imagines what it would be like if they could fly.

The story is sprinkled with Spanish phrases. Hetterick doesn't speak Spanish, but she reads without hesitation, smoothly turning pages and pausing to ask students questions.

"Anybody speak Spanish here?" Hetterick asked.

A few of children do, but no one criticizes her pronunciation. Most of the students listen quietly and attentively until the story ends.

Hetterick said she likes reading to students because they are so focused. As a volunteer reader, she can pop in and out of class without having to do any classroom management.

"Every once in awhile there are a couple that decide they're going to play with each other," she said. "But very seldom have I stopped reading to say something."

Dylan Peers McCoy is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.