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Foster grandparent program returns to classrooms after year-long hiatus due to COVID-19
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Foster grandparent program returns to classrooms after year-long hiatus due to COVID-19

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Earlier this week, tucked away behind two whiteboards at Paxson Elementary School, small groups of students read books aloud in "Grandma Jonna’s Corner."

They practiced diction and fluency while expanding their vocabulary under the watchful eye of Jonna Rhein, 71, who volunteers as a foster grandparent with Missoula Aging Services.

They practice diction and fluency while expanding their vocabulary reading books under the watchful eye of 71-year-old Jonna Rhein, who volunteers at Paxson Elementary School as a foster grandparent with Missoula Aging Services.

It's been nearly a year since Rhein and other foster grandparents have been able to volunteer in classrooms across Missoula County Public Schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But she returned to "Grandma Jonna's Corner" without missing a beat on Tuesday.

The Missoula Aging Services foster grandparent program offers an extra set of hands for teachers to provide one-on-one support for students, primarily in reading or math. 

Volunteers receive a $3 an hour stipend with compensation for mileage and are expected to serve between 15 and 40 hours a week. Foster grandparents must be 55 years old and low-income to qualify for the program.

Learning to read 

At Paxson, Rhein starts her day at 8:30 a.m. volunteering with librarians before she begins rotating through her reading groups. This year she is working with six classes at the school including kindergarten, second- and third-grade students. She coordinates with teachers who assign books to certain levels of readers.

Before diving into the book “Flat Stanley'' with a group of three second-grade students on Tuesday, Rhein directed their attention to the white boards behind them covered in words they'd come across while reading. She underlined syllables in words like vacation, examination, experience and enormous to help the students sound them out before they dove into the book.

“Does it help?” Rhein asked.

“Yeah!” the students replied. 

Rhein also encouraged the students to emphasize punctuation while reading out loud, such as pausing at commas, getting into a character during sections of dialogue or “making it strong” with an exclamation point. 

“Flat Stanley, you know, for heaven’s sake, they found him flat! There should be something dramatic about that,” Rhein said. 

A retired nurse, after a year without work, Rhein said she was eager to find a way to keep busy. She began volunteering at Paxson when her grandson was in second grade, and eventually connected with Missoula Aging Services to become part of its foster grandparent program. Today her full-time job and focus for the last decade has been to help young students gain confidence in their reading abilities. 

One group of second graders is reading the “Tale of Despereaux,” and Rhein was able to snag a copy of it from the school library to read in her free time.

“I really love that book, but I don’t want to beat the kids. I try to stay with them,” she said.

COVID impact

There are 24 foster grandparents volunteering in schools across Missoula County through Missoula Aging Services, according to Adrienne Hopkins, the volunteer coordinator for the program.

So far, only nine foster grandparents have returned to the classroom during the pandemic since Missoula County Public Schools welcomed vaccinated volunteers back.

“People are volunteers for a reason. I mean, people who dedicate up to 40 hours a week to volunteer, it’s a part of their soul, it’s part of who they are, it’s part of their self identity,” Hopkins said.

But this year has been different for Rhein and other foster grandparents. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers weren’t allowed in public schools until this spring.

“It was horrible,” Rhein said. “I hate to sit around and clean house.” 

Despite not being able to volunteer at the school physically, she was able to stay connected with her students and took videos of herself reading books out loud. Other volunteers made no-contact deliveries to students, packed meals and worked as crossing guards or online tutors. 

“The volunteers have just been amazingly flexible during this time. Anything that needed doing, any service project, however small or however big, they’ve just said ‘yes, I just want to help,’” Hopkins said. “They’re amazing people.”

Olivia DeJohn, a second grade teacher at Paxson who works with Rhein, said that she’s noticed students in the program transform into confident readers, eager for their next session with "Grandma Jonna." 

“They’re just really excited to read, and being excited to read is a pretty huge indicator for success at the younger grades,” DeJohn said. 

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