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Learning Buddies brings seniors back to the classroom at area elementary schools

Volunteer Marlys Neudecker works with a student in Lindsay Bell's North Trail Elementary School third grade class on Monday, Sept. 26. Neudecker is a volunteer with DARTS Learning Buddies, a program operating in elementary schools in both Farmington and Rosemount. (Kim Ukura | Independent Town Pages)

When third-graders at North Trail Elementary School return to school each fall, they're joined in the classroom by 83-year-old Farmington resident Marlys Neudecker.

For a few hours each week, Neudecker can be found at a table in the third grade common area, reading poetry or playing math games with students, activities the grandmother of seven said she finds very rewarding.

Since 2005, Neudecker has been a volunteer with DARTS Learning Buddies, an intergenerational program that connects seniors and students to help improve proficiency in reading, math and science.

Neudecker began volunteering in 2005, and said she is excited to return to school each year.

"After my husband passed away I thought, 'I need something to,' and it was something that I was interested in anyway," said Neudecker. "It just kind of makes my day, with the kids. If you're in a down mood or something, when you come here with the kids it just gets better."

Learning Buddies began in 1997 at Glacier Hills Elementary School in Eagan with a single volunteer working to provide needed assistance to classroom teachers. A social worker in the district connected with DARTS, a West St. Paul-based nonprofit that works with older adults, to bring those communities together.

"Teachers were looking to have some extra time spent with students to help with reading, and the volunteers were able to help do that," said Program Coordinator Erin Walloch.

During the first year of the program, teachers saw changes in their students. Their reading skills improved, and they developed relationships with the adult volunteers in the classroom. That was enough to keep support for the program going, Walloch said.

Today, Learning Buddies has partnerships with 46 elementary schools in Dakota and Scott Counties, placing 135 volunteers in classrooms each week to work with students on reading, math and science skills. Volunteers can be found at both North Trail and Riverview elementary schools in Farmington and at Rosemount and Diamond Path elementary schools in District 196.

Flint Hills Resources in Rosemount was the founding sponsor program in 1997 and continues to be the top supporter of the program today. Over the 20 years of the program, volunteers have logged more than 88,000 hours and served more than 50,000 students.

"We're pretty proud of the partnerships we have with the schools in the community, and we know the stronger that our students do in school, the stronger our communities are going to be now and in the future," Walloch said.

There isn't any set curriculum for the program. Instead, volunteers get direction from classroom teachers on the activities and students they will work with during their weekly visit.

At North Trail, third grade teachers Lindsay Bell and Kerie Schwietz use Neudecker's volunteer time for support in reading and math, as well as giving students individual attention from a caring adult.

"We always see them get a big smile on their face — everybody wants to know when it is their turn to go out and work with Mrs. Neudecker," said Schwietz. "It gives them the attention they want ... without them really realizing it, they're also getting skill practice."

Most of the volunteers with the program are older adults, a component that Walloch said is a key feature in the program's success.

"Not all students may have a grandpa or grandma nearby," said Walloch. "(The program) allows them an opportunity to connect with an older adult and exchange stories and get to know each other. In so many ways, the older adults learn from the students just like the students learn from the adults. It's a really unique experience."