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‘If you care, you connect’: Barb Lovaasen, 86, has long history of working with kids

Barb Lovaasen took her first teacher’s aide job in 1980. Now, at 86-years-old, she still volunteers at Heart of the Lakes Elementary and Prairie Wind Middle School three days a week. Here, she is pictured with a group of students from the elementary school. Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS

Barb Lovaasen never expected to be working with students full-time.

Years ago, while in her early 50s, she worked part-time at the grocery store in Vergas, and taught Sunday school at her church. But then, in 1979, she went on a retreat with a Methodist women’s group, and everything started to change.

“First thing they did in the circle, I’ll never forget it … they said, ‘We want you to tell what baggage you came with,’” said Barb. “In other words, what was bothering you. I thought, ‘Well, nothing’s bothering me.’ But, they came to me and I said, ‘I hate my job.’ I couldn’t believe I said it!”

When she got home from the retreat, Barb went to the Perham elementary school to answer a help wanted ad for a teacher’s aide. She was told the position had already been filled, but she took an application anyway and stuck it in a drawer at home.

Several months later, Barb hurt her back while trying to lift too many heavy boxes at work.

That’s when she pulled out that aide application again. This time, she got the job. She was hired as an aide for the special education program.

“It was so interesting, because the day of the first teacher’s workshop was exactly one year, to the day, of when I had that experience (at the retreat),” Barb said.

She didn’t have any prior teaching experience in either a regular or special education classroom setting, so everything was a learning experience for Barb, and she had to rely on her instincts.

Her first week on the job, the teacher she was assisting, Pat Boom, paired her with a boy who was known for being stubborn. After trying several times to get through to him, Barb had enough.

“I just looked at him and I just said, ‘I’ve had it. That’s enough. I want you to get over to the table, sit down and get to work.’ He just...looked at me, then went over and sat down,” Barb said.

“At the end of the day, Pat said ‘Well, you did alright.’ I said, ‘Sure! You turned me from this nice, sweet grandma back into...a mean mother!” she said, laughing. “That was my first full-time job, at 52. And then, I realized that I love to teach.”

When she was 66, Barb ‘retired’ from working as an aide, and started filling in as a substitute on a regular basis until she needed to take a break and care for her husband, Luverne, in the fall of 2013.

After Luverne passed away, Barb moved into town and began wondering what she would do with her free time. When some of her former co-workers found out that she’d moved, they began asking if she was going to start subbing again.

“I said, ‘I’m 85 and I kind of enjoy not hearing that phone ring at 7 a.m., but maybe I’ll volunteer.’”

Barb called first grade teacher Kim Flatau in September of 2013 to ask whether they could use some help, and learned that, sure enough, they were short-handed.

“So, I said, ‘Count on me,’” said Barb, and she started going to Heart of the Lakes Elementary School twice a week. Not long after that, she also added a day at Prairie Wind Middle School.

“Every morning...I thank God that I can still be useful at 86 and I can still enjoy it,” Barb said. “It’s good for me. Children are… they just fill your life, and I know there’s a need. I just feel I’ve been blessed with such a rewarding and rich life. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.”

According to the first grade teachers she works with now, Barb is a blessing.

“Having Barb is like a gift, because she is such a natural and she’s a teacher,” said Kim Flatau. “She’s the type of person who comes in and every kid wishes they had the chance to go with her.”

“She does things a classroom teacher wishes they had time for,” said Ann Kostynick. “She can take a kid one-on-one for 20 minutes and work on skills.” Ann added that Barb also helps by tracking students’ progress, so they know the children are learning.

Both teachers agreed that their students seem to tune in and listen better when Barb is around.

“I guess, if people know you love them and respect them, it’s the same back,” said Barb of her connection to the students. “I could be young and not connect. I think, if you care, you connect. I’ve never treated them like little kids.”