by Mike Knaak
When Sartell students return to class in a few weeks, they’ll find foster grandparents welcoming them back along with their classroom teachers.
Foster grandparents assist teachers and help with instruction but most importantly they form relationships with students.
Foster grandparent Penny Lundblad joined students at Oak Ridge Elementary School last January.
“I love the kids,” Lundblad said. “They really fulfill a day for me. I’m a widow and I was running out of things to do. They run up to me in the hall and give me a big hug. It brightens my day and I know I am helping the kids with math and reading.”
Four people are in the foster grandparents program at Sartell schools. Organizers would like to see more join the program.
The foster grandparents program started in 1965 to get seniors into schools to mentor students. Applicants must be at least 55 years old and they need to commit to at least 15 hours per week.
Sara Heurung supervises the program in Sartell for Catholic Charities. In the 16 counties served by Catholic Charities, there are 180 foster grandparents and she’d like to see more people join.
“I would recommend the program to anybody,” Lundblad said.
This will be Judy Groth’s fifth year at Pine Meadow Elementary School where she works with kindergartners.
“Every year I enjoy it a little bit better,” Groth said. “It filled the gap in my life after my husband died. I thoroughly enjoy it.”
Teacher Cris Drais described the variety of Groth’s contributions to the classroom.
“During math she can take two or three students and do an activity page if we’re doing something with partners,” Drais said. “Kids will bring books to her to read. We had a group that really liked to color during choice time. She got some coloring books with the really detailed images. They would chat away with her while they colored. They know she really cares about them.”
Foster grandparent Judi Heinen works with kindergartners at Pine Meadow.
“I’ve always been interested in reading,” Heinen said. “It’s such a thrill to see where they start and where they are at the end of the year. Seeing how they thrive and grow throughout the year is unbelievable.”
People interested in applying for the program can contact Heurung at 320-229-4589.
Heurung meets with applicants to discuss their strengths, what they want to do to help and where they want to work. Following a background check, new foster grandparents are assigned a school and a teacher. Orientation includes meeting others in the program, touring the school and shadowing another foster grandparent.
“The only skill you need is to be able to listen and have an open mind,” Heurung said.
Lundblad found “the teachers, paras and other people – everybody made me feel like one of them and made me feel very welcome.”
Oak Ridge’s social worker, Connie Conner, wishes she could have a foster grandparent in every kindergarten classroom.
“I love to see what’s happening with the kids, the teachers and foster grandparents,” Conner said. “You don’t need to know how to teach. You just have to love kids.”