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Foster grandparents become 'everybody's grandmas'

Students at Eagle View Elementary School in Breezy Point know them as “Grandma Jo” and “Grandma Norma.”

And Jo Smith and Norma Leifeld couldn’t be any happier to have hundreds of new “grandchildren” this school year.

Smith, a Crosslake resident, and Leifeld, who lives in Breezy Point, are the newest foster grandparents at Eagle View, joining longtime foster grandparent volunteers Dave Anderson and Nancy Meinke when school started last September.

Anderson has been volunteering through the program for eight years while Meinke has been an Eagle View foster grandparent for six years.

Smith has always had a love of children. She ran a home day care for eight years and grew up as one of 10 children in Brainerd. When she learned about the Foster Grandparent Program at Eagle View, she immediately wanted to sign up and get involved. Smith volunteers 22 hours, three days a week, working one-on-one with first- through fourth-grade students who need a little extra boost with their reading skills.

Leifeld started volunteering at Eagle View one day a week last year in her granddaughter Avery Bergstrom’s first-grade classroom. All five of her grandchildren are enrolled in the school district, and Avery is the only grandchild who is at Eagle View.

This year Leifeld joined the Foster Grandparent Program and is volunteering 26 hours, four days a week, at the elementary school helping kindergartners through fourth-graders work on their reading skills.

While Leifeld doesn’t volunteer in her granddaughter’s second-grade classroom this year, she is able to have lunch with her granddaughter most school days and even joins her for some fresh air on the playground during recess.

Leifeld has a physical education degree and spent many years working in retail. She said, “Once you’re a teacher, you’re always a teacher,” and she enjoys seeing the improvements that students are making in their literacy skills throughout the year.

“I enjoy doing it. It makes me feel good,” Leifeld said with a smile. “I believe if you have the time and capability, you should give back.”

“We’re helping another generation learn,” added Smith. “It makes you feel like you are valued. For me, it also gets me out among people.”

Smith’s own grandchildren live 150 miles away, but now whenever she goes out, she often runs into students who say, “Hi, Grandma Jo.”

“You become everybody’s grandma,” said Leifeld.

Marcia Ferris, Lutheran Social Service regional program manager, said foster grandparents become that extra person in a classroom that teachers wouldn’t otherwise have.

“They are the icing on the cake, not the cake,” Ferris said. “Their goal is to work with some of the kids that are slipping between the cracks.”

Foster grandparents serve in area schools, women’s shelters, preschools and Head Start programs. They normally volunteer between 15 to 20 hours per week.

(Jodie Tweed is a former reporter for the Brainerd Dispatch and is now a freelance writer. She lives in Pequot Lakes with her husband, Nels Norquist, and three daughters.)