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Learning Buddies celebrates 15 years of helping kids thrive

Mary Jean Hanson works with RES kindergartner Sophie Valsler on a reading assignment. Hanson has worked with Sarah Schaefer's kindergarten class since February through the Learning Buddies program.

Mary Jean Hanson is very popular in Sarah Schaefer's kindergarten class. Each Tuesday morning Hanson volunteers through the DARTS Learning Buddies program.

"My kids absolutely love MJ. They all want a chance to read with her. They have benefited greatly from her," said Schaefer.

Hanson's role in the classroom is to help the kids with reading, math and science. She listens to the kids read and plays math games with them during the hour a week she is in the classroom. While she's helping them, Hanson gets something in return.

"It's very rewarding. I'm glad I did it," said Hanson.

Hanson signed up to volunteer at the suggestion of a neighbor who also participates. She followed his advice this past winter and since February has volunteered once a week in Schaefer's class.

Hanson is one of several Learning Buddies volunteers that spend time at Rosemount Elementary School. Gayle Gjovik volunteers in Deb Hilden's second grade class.

She has helped a number of students improve their reading over the last year. Hilden said she feels fortunate to have worked with Gjovik over the past several years.

"The children really do love to work with other caring adults besides their teacher. When Gayle enters the room the students have big smiles and all their hands go up because they want to be selected to work with her," said Hilden.

Hilden said the volunteers have a positive impact on her students' academics and the one-on-one attention improves their confidence.

Learning Buddies is run through DARTS, which is a West St. Paul-based non-profit that works to enrich aging said coordinator Jo Lynn Bucki. The program, which is primarily funded by Flint Hills Resources, is celebrating 15 years.

The program puts volunteers in 28 schools throughout Dakota County including Rosemount Elementary School. Bucki said they match volunteers with schools near their homes. Volunteers do a variety of things depending on what the teacher needs help with.

Bucki said she is always recruiting new volunteers for the program. While it's not a requirement, Bucki said many of the Learning Buddies are retired. Bucki said the time commitment is one or two hours a week but some volunteers choose to do more.

Because they are working in the schools, the volunteers must go through an application process that includes a background and reference check. Bucki said they are very careful to only put good people into the schools.

After getting accepted volunteers go through training. Additionally, Learning Buddies offers several more in-depth training sessions throughout the year.

Bucki said the program has about 100 volunteers, some of whom have been with the program the entire time.

"A lot stick with it," said Bucki.

Hilden said the volunteers make a big impact in the schools and encouraged more to consider doing it.

"I would encourage those looking to make a difference in the lives of children to consider the DARTS program and to volunteer their talents in an elementary school," said Hilden.

For more information visit the DARTS website at

Emily Zimmer
Emily Zimmer has worked as a staff writer for the Rosemount Town Pages since 2007. She has a degree in journalism from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Outside of work, Emily enjoys running, reading and gardening. You can follow Emily's gardening adventures at the Areavoices blog East of Weedin'
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