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A West Saint Paul nonprofit proves it's never too late to make a difference

Learning Buddies celebrates 25 years of connecting older adult volunteers with classrooms filled with eager, young students on Communities that KARE.

WEST SAINT PAUL, Minnesota — "I think I was brought up that we must contribute, we must want to contribute to our community or to help each other. So that is just in my bones."  

Even at 82, Linde Gassman has a buoyancy that allows her to create connections with the children in Apple Valley. "When I went to Cedar Park, it was like, I am just amazed at the atmosphere, at the respect shown by everyone to everyone and back again." 

The retired administrator is a longtime volunteer with the DARTS Learning Buddies program, celebrating its 25th anniversary. Learning Buddies matches older adult volunteers with students in elementary and middle school to give them a boost in the classroom. 

"If you really want to know what's going on in our schools, if you really want to connect with children, then you can do this by spending time having them read to you," said Gassman.

Erin Walloch manages the program and sees firsthand how much impact these volunteers make. "You know, before COVID, we were able to see students working in classrooms. It was amazing to see their eyes light up when their learning buddy walked into the classroom."

Meet-ups are virtual now for the most part, and volunteers created an online library. Walloch said they've gathered 204 recordings of volunteers reading book that they could share with schools. It leaves a lasting legacy for these extraordinary volunteer educators. 

"The students a few years back had drawn a picture of Linde, and they put on our favorite old lady," Walloch reminisced. "I want to be Linde when I grow up." 

So how long will Gassman stay volunteering? "I don't know how long I'm going to live, so it's up in the air. But, I will do it as long as I'm able."

It's a common sentiment within the program.

"It's in their blood; they're passionate about it, and you can find something that can help you blossom and then also help students blossom," said Walloch. "We like to say it's a win, win, win; for the students and schools, for the volunteers, and the community.

130 Learning Buddies volunteers currently mentor students 45 schools in Dakota, Scott and Ramsey counties. There's another program that creates pen pals between volunteers and students. To learn more, check out this link.

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