“They make me smile every day,” said Anna Mae Gomke of the students she’s helped at Mountain View Elementary in Great Falls. “Every day is truly enjoyable.”
After 30 years working in retail and one year of retirement, Anna Mae knew she still had a lot of energy and wanted to do something that mattered. While attending a craft fair, she noticed a booth explaining what the Foster Grandparent Program in Cascade County, Mont., was all about.
“I walked over to the booth and talked with the folks there to find out more about the program,” Anna Mae said. “The minimum commitment is 10 hours a week with kids, along with a sincere interest in helping struggling students. And of course, confidentiality is paramount.”
Volunteers must be over 55 years of age, pass a stringent background check, be finger printed, and understand the challenges many of the youth they work with are facing.
Tina Lopez, Foster Grandparent Program Manager since 2005, said 36 people are in the program currently, so they are right at capacity.
“We’ve had the program since 1981,” Lopez said. “Our average age for volunteers is 67, but our oldest Foster Grandparent is 93, and she works with deaf and blind students.”
Many of the volunteers come from a school employee background says Lopez.
“Over the years we’ve had retired teachers, aids, and lunchroom personnel volunteer, which is a huge help, because they understand the system. This past year we’ve also had four men participating as well, and one of them is blind himself, but he listens to kids read.”
What sets Anna Mae apart is how long she’s volunteered
She was never interested in the minimum commitment, and to this day, she shows up at school five days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
“The biggest challenge for me, and something I needed to work on and didn’t even know it, was patience,” she said. “I found it interesting that, although I thought of myself as patient, I really needed to work on that, letting the kids figure out things before jumping in to help them.”
The Foster Grandparent Program has a number of different settings for working with children, but Anna Mae chose to work in an elementary school.
“I’ve been in first grade all the time,” she joked. “I just can’t seem to get to the next level.”
Each day, “Grandma Anna” works with small groups of students on reading, writing, and math. And, for most of her 18 years, she’s worked with the same teacher.
“We’re really friends, now,” explained Anna Mae. “Each day we meet before class starts, to discuss what we’ll be covering. I work with small groups of three to four children at a time in reading, writing, and math.”
She said she is constantly surprised at how much children know and what they are taught.
“They love using playing cards for math games,” she said. “They think they’re just playing games, but they are really learning math. By the end of first grade, the kids are working with fractions, something I never did in first grade!”
And, she added, young students are learning to use verbs and adjectives in their writing.
“I’m just amazed at how advanced kids today are. They use computers all the time, and it’s just part of their normal day.”
An interesting aspect of Mountain View Elementary is its open plan building. No walls section off classes, but things like book shelves denote spaces.
“At first I wasn’t sure I could take the noise,” Anna Mae recalled. “But now, I don’t even notice it. Some substitute teachers have a hard time with it, though, just like I did at first. Now, I think kids would feel penned in if they had to be in a room with walls all day.”
Anna Mae said staying at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic has really made her miss the students at school. And she’s worried about a few in particular.
“One student was really struggling with learning sight words, then, all of a sudden, he just got it and really lit up with the success. Now I worry that student might fall behind and lose confidence.”
Teachers at the school, like so many teachers across the country, are seeking out ways to keep children learning at home.
“All of them are producing packets for parents to pick up to use at home with the kids,” she said. “Then parents return them to school for feedback from the teacher. It’s not the same as being in class, but it’s a way to keep kids learning and a way to help parents.”
Tina Lopez is concerned about next school year as well.
“Most of our volunteers are in the age bracket that is more vulnerable to COVID-19, so we want to make sure our Foster Grandparents stay safe.”
Anna Mae is concerned that her summer volunteer work may be changed due to COVID-19.
“I volunteer five days a week in summer at the children’s museum in town,” she said. “I’ve done that since 2012, and it keeps me with kids when school is out. “
What the virus will mean for opening the museum is anyone’s guess at this point, however.
Anna Mae was recognized for her dedication in 2017 as Volunteer of the Year with the Foster Grandparent Program. With a total of 19,022 hours volunteering up to now, it’s not hard to understand why she would be recognized for her dedication to students.
“I was really surprised by that,” she said.
According to Lopez, Anna Mae is a gem. “Her mind is totally focused on the kids and the connection and love she brings to them is so special.”
With school closed, Anna Mae is missing a big part of her life.
“I sure miss the smiling faces,” she lamented. “Everything about these kids makes for a happy day.”
Hopefully, Grandma Anna will be at Mountain View Elementary in September, welcoming kids with a ready smile and the energy to keep up with a new group of 6-year-old students to help. MSN