DARTS' Learning Buddies connects kids and seniors

SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minn. -- "So how are you today?" Mary Towey settles in with her student, one of many second graders she will see today from Lori Shubat's second grade class at Lincoln Center Elementary in South St. Paul.

"The kids just love her," said Shubat, who relies on Towey to read one on one with the students, which bolsters their reading skills.

Towey is a volunteer with DARTS' Learning Buddies program, which places senior volunteers in classrooms to help students practice their reading, math and science skills. "You don't have to have a background in education, you don't have to have grandkids," said program coordinator Erin Walloch.

DARTS provides training and development for volunteers throughout the year. The agency has volunteers in 39 elementary schools in Dakota County, with room for more. The Learning Buddies program began in 1997 when DARTS partnered with Flint Hills, which still provides funding.

Towey provides a patient ear for the children, and by doing so, extends their learning opportunities.

"I would not have that time, with the class size, to read with them on a one to one basis," said Shubat. "Grandma Mary allows that to happen."

Towey also helps to draw out students who might be reluctant learners in the classroom. Principal Mike Fugazzi has seen it happen and says there's science behind it. "When we feel we're in a welcoming environment, and a safe environment, we're much more willing to be risk-takers. We're much more willing to be engaged with the academics going on," he said.

For Towey, it's a labor of love, and one she doesn't plan to give up anytime soon. "I don't know who gets more out of it, the kids or myself, because they're just such a joy to work with," said Towey.


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