By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN Exuberant calls of “Hi, Grandpa Jim!” echo through the hall whenever Jim Fowler visits his grandkids at Winsted Elementary.
He carries their photos on a clipboard as he floats from room to room with more than 100 names to remember, it can be tricky keeping everyone straight.
Fowler has only been a foster grandparent since March, but he’s already become quite popular.
“It’s kind of a down day if I don’t get five or six hugs,” he remarked.
Students always invite Fowler to eat at their lunch table, and they clamor for his attention as they chat about their day.
“With the foster grandparent program, you’re not the disciplinarian; you’re helping them, and you can be a friend,” Fowler said. “It’s someone to listen.”
Fowler is Winsted Elementary’s first foster grandparent, but Humphrey Elementary in Waverly has participated in the program for the past five or six years, according to Pam Henry-Neaton, adult volunteer coordinator for the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School District.
“It’s worked out really well for us,” Henry-Neaton said. “They do a minimum of 15 hours per week; they can do more if they want.”
According to Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (the organization that runs the program through Minnesota Senior Corps), volunteers receive a tax-free stipend of $2.65 per hour and mileage reimbursement. Foster grandparents must be at least 55 years old and meet program qualifications.
Once a volunteer has been approved, Henry-Neaton and the teachers determine where help is needed. Hours are typically based on the volunteer’s schedule.
Fowler meets with several preschool through second-grade students each day, in small groups and one-on-one.
“I was scared to death when they put me with the preschoolers,” Fowler admitted, explaining that it’s been many years since he’s interacted with 4-year-olds.
His apprehension quickly subsided, though, and he now he says they’re one of the most rewarding age groups.
Throughout the school day, Fowler can be found helping with reading, writing, spelling, math, and pretty much anything else that’s needed in the classroom. Literacy is a major focus, and Fowler offers puzzles and games to help make learning fun.
Although he’s new to the program, Fowler has already made an impact in students’ lives.
One little boy, for example, who struggled with reading out loud, consistently went back and corrected his own mistakes. Fowler noticed this and complimented him on his effort. As they went back to the classroom, the student stood waiting for his teacher and proudly told her, “Grandpa Jim complimented me.”
Another student has been able to ace her accelerated reading tests after reading with Grandpa Jim.
Emphasis on education
“It’s a good fit,” Fowler said of being a foster grandparent. “Education has always been important in our family, and I’m an avid reader.”
Fowler and his wife, Evelyn (who manages the creative/design department at Herald Journal), have three children Sarah, Wade, and Emma all with college degrees.
Fowler works from home as a consultant with the Small Business Development Center, providing guidance for a wide variety of businesses. Previously, he had a 39-year career in banking.
This summer, Fowler plans to continue helping children with literacy through a new program at the Winsted Public Library called Book a Buddy.
In the fall, he hopes to return to Winsted Elementary for another year of foster grandparenting.
To learn more about becoming a foster grandparent, contact Kate Neuhaus at (651) 310-9447 or follow the link to the Minnesota Senior Corps website at www.herald-journal.com. Questions can also be directed to Pam Henry-Neaton at (763) 658-4424.
“We can always use more people,” Henry-Neaton said.
Prevent ‘summer slide’
Young people who stop reading when the school year is over sometimes experience what is known as “summer slide,” They lose some of their skills, and teachers have to get them caught up again in the fall.
One way to prevent this is through “Book a Buddy.” The new program is a way for children to build literacy while getting to know their local library, according to Lisa Ebert of the Winsted Public Library.
What: Book a Buddy reading time with foster grandparent Jim Fowler of Winsted.
Where: The Winsted Public Library.
When: Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon, starting June 11 and going through July 16. Parents can schedule a short session for their child anytime during the program.
Who: Preschool age through third grade.
Why: Jim Fowler will listen to children read (or read to them or with them) as a fun way to sharpen reading skills throughout the summer.
Contact: To sign up or learn more, contact the Winsted Public Library at (320) 485-3909 or stop in. The library is open Mondays and Wednesdays from 2 to 7 p.m.; Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Fridays from 2 to 5 p.m.; and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon.