Grandparents for Education enter fourth year in Owatonna

/ 28 September 2012 / eunice

Derek Sullivan, Owatonna People’s Press, September 28, 2012 – For the fourth straight school year, Owatonna hallways are filled with students, teachers, administrators and grandparents.

Yes, grandparents.

Since 2010, the local volunteer group Grandparents for Education has been helping local students. The program, started by Ron and Sondra von Arb, has more than 100 volunteers, who work at Owatonna public schools and St. Mary’s Catholic School.

Though 100 seems like a large number, Sondra von Arb said the volunteer group cannot keep up with requests from schools.

“We could use, maybe, up to 50 more,” she said. “We take these kids out of the classroom. We sit with them in the library, in the hallway, in the cafeteria. We read with them, do math with them, do their homework with them. Anything they need, we will try and meet their needs.”

Volunteer Grace Hosfield works with seventh-graders at Owatonna Junior High School on their reading skills. Hosfield said her grandchildren live hours away, so she loves spending time with the students.

“I love the interaction with the kids,” she said. “It gives you a different perspective on the world and life when you work with seventh-graders, especially. The kids keep me connected with what is going on in the world.”

Sondra von Arb said the program was set up to work with, and not replace, staff members — such as paid education assistants or paraprofessionals.

The Owatonna school district has been battling budget problems. Last April, $1.8 million was cut from the budget and several EAs were not brought back. Sondra von Arb said she heard rumors that the grandparents were being brought in to replace paid staff. She said that is “flat out not true.”

“No way. No way,” she said. “A lot of our volunteers are retired teachers. I’m one of them. (Paid staff) comes first. If it got to that point, we would withdraw our grandparents. It’s not going to be that way. They need a job. We don’t need to do this. We don’t get paid. We would withdraw.”

Along with looking for more grandparents, Sondra von Arb has also been reaching out to students who may want to help other students, especially with reading skills. She calls the program, “Teens and Agers.”

“What we want to do is find students who are willing to take part of their study hall and help fellow a student who need help with reading,” she said.

To grow the new program, von Arb plans to speak with teachers, students council, National Honor Society and other organizations.

When she isn’t looking for volunteers, von Arb is thinking of ways to raise the more than $20,000 it takes to run the program. While the grandparents aren’t paid, there are costs. To manage the database and make phone calls, the organization has one part-time staff member, who is paid about $4,000.

To help train the volunteers, teachers are paid to come to speak with the grandparents.

The organization also uses lots and lots of paper. While many businesses and organizations are going paper-free, Grandparents for Education still needs to print out information.

“Many of our volunteers have computers, but the volunteers are old,” she said. “They may only use their computer to write to their kids. I have board members who won’t open an attachment. They’re 80-some years old.”

Hosfield and many other grandparents also help with fundraising. The organization helps with a lot of homecoming activities, which includes driving golf carts back to Brooktree. They hold several fundraisers, including one on Oct. 17 at the Pizza Ranch.

Sondra von Arb said she hopes to raise enough money to create a surplus for the organization. If she and her husband can no longer run the program, she would like money set aside to hire someone to replace them.

“This is a very important program, and I hope it stays around long after I’m gone,” she said.