After she retired, Jonna Rhein, 68, spent a year relaxing. She watched TV, rode her bike, read books. She’d spent 30 years working as a nurse in Missoula, and retired after having both her knees replaced. Rhein had earned the relaxation, but it quickly bored her.
After that year, Rhein began spending an hour a day volunteering in her grandson’s second grade class at Paxson Elementary. She’d help the teacher, Sherrie Harris, with reading groups. When the hour ended and she returned to her house, Rhein missed spending time with the kids.
She began asking other teachers if she could help in their classrooms, too. Seven years later, she spends Mondays through Fridays at Paxson, volunteering from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. She estimates she’s spent 8,000 hours there, greeting late students in the morning and signing them in, leading reading groups, and giving one-on-one instruction to kids who need the extra attention.
“As a nurse, you work full on, all day, from start to finish,” Rhein said. “And I’m not a sitter. So this is great. And I’m also really good with kids, because I don’t get crabby.”
Rhein walks through the hallways of Paxson like a nurse making rounds. She knows and greets everyone, gives compliments in passing, instructs kids to do their work in a stern but motherly tone.
“I’m an old-fashioned girl, so I like my kids to use some of the same behaviors that I was taught,” Rhein said. “Sit up straight, speak up when you read. And the kids all respond to it. They know in my group they can't be wild.”
Rhein’s sternness ends there. When second grade teacher Harris told her she could make some money — $2.64 an hour, “the big bucks,” as Rhein calls it — through the Foster Grandparent program, Rhein decided to sign up. She went to the police station, where they took her fingerprints and ran a background check. Rhein volunteered some information they’d likely find.
“I do have a record,” she told them. In the '60s, Rhein was arrested in Missoula while protesting the Vietnam War at the recruiting office in town. She described herself as a hippie back then, at one point leaving Montana to live in San Francisco to join the counterculture in Haight-Ashbury.
Rhein’s record didn’t prevent her from being accepted to the Foster Grandparent program, which pays a small stipend to retirees who wish to work in schools helping kids learn to read. The program was created in the 1970s as part of president Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Aside from helping kids with math and reading, it’s also a good remedy for the post-retirement boredom Rhein talked about. The stipend hasn’t increased much since the '70s, but Rhein isn’t in it for the money.
She spends the day meeting with several different reading groups. The kids gather around her and take turns reading, and Rhein encourages them to speak more slowly, to enunciate, and to keep reading their books at home.
When one kid sniffles, she hands him a tissue. When another one is seated too far from the table, she scoots them in. All the kids are like her grandchildren.
“They refer to her as grandma and I think they love that too, because kids don’t get to see their grandparents that much,” said Harris, the second grade teacher.
Harris said having Rhein around has helped keep the reading groups small enough for the students to get individualized attention. Plus, she adds “sparkle,” Harris said.
“I do reading groups, but I need help and manpower to run the reading groups efficiently, and she has the personality and commitment to the kids to help them be the best readers. They really like her sense of humor and her sweet demeanor toward them.”
Paxson is a Spanish immersion school, meaning the students have some classes exclusively in Spanish, and Rhein said it’s remarkable to watch the kids read in different languages. Rhein’s dad was in the military, and she lived in Germany, Puerto Rico, and all over the United States before graduating high school.
To help the kids be excited about reading groups, she lets them occasionally read in foreign accents, or rap the words to the book.
“The only rule is they cannot laugh, because it disrupts everyone who’s doing their thing,” Rhein said. “But it is the funnest.”
In 2017, Rhein won the Community Service Award for Intergenerational Service from the American Association of Retired Persons for her service at Paxson over the years. While there are a number of foster grandparents in the area, Rhein’s nearly full-time volunteer work sets her apart, said Paxson Principal Peter Halloran.
“It’s wonderful to have someone who will just build a relationship with the kids who need it. And it’s also wonderful to have someone who is asking what needs to be done today and then is happy to do so.”
Rhein admits she’s sort of taken over Paxson. She enjoys feeling involved, feeling needed. She's helped kids who could hardly get through a children's book meet their goal of reading chapter books.
“It’s just so much fun because I’m not a teacher, I don’t go to meetings. But I develop a relationship with the kids, and it’s been so many years that I’ve done reading groups with multiple kids in the same families.”
Teachers and administrators have grown used to having Rhein around.
"When Jonna's missing," Harris said, "we know it."