National Volunteer Week: The beloved 'Grandmas' of New York Mills School

"There's Grandma!" two young girls hollered on their way to music class at New York Mills School on Monday, detouring over to a smiling woman for a quick hug.

'Grandma' LaVonne Apland listens to Elliot Mann in a reading session Monday morning. Apland volunteers four mornings a week, spending time with 18 students to help them develop comprehension skills. Connie Vandermay/FOCUS

"There's Grandma!" two young girls hollered on their way to music class at New York Mills School on Monday, detouring over to a smiling woman for a quick hug.

This kind of interaction doesn't just happen at school. It happens at stores, garage sales and other places around town - wherever and whenever any of the school's three beloved 'Grandmas' are spotted.

In this case, it happened during an interview with two of the 'Grandmas,' including Patty Jokela. After the girls ran off, Jokela said with a laugh, "Those aren't even the ones we read to."

Jokela, along with LaVonne Apland and Kaye Albin, are the 'Grandmas' of NY Mills School. While they're not really relatives of the students, they still feel like family to most of the kids and staff.

That's because, as volunteers with the Foster Grandparents program, the 'Grandmas' spend a lot of time at the school, reading with kids, helping with math or simply offering a hug and a listening ear.


Each of the 'Grandmas' spends three to four mornings a week at the school, seeing about 18 students a day. One by one, second through fourth grade students leave their classrooms for quick reading sessions with their assigned 'Grandma.' A typical session lasts about five minutes, but can go longer.

The main goal of the 'Grandmas' is to help students develop reading comprehension skills. Many kids know how to read and move along pretty quickly, but struggle with understanding what was read, the 'Grandmas' said.

In a typical session, the kids read out loud from their books for a few minutes and then the 'Grandmas' stop and question them on what they read.

"We learn just as much as the kids," Jokela said. "Today I learned about whales."

Watching students' progress throughout the year has been very rewarding for the 'Grandmas.' They've seen kids improve academically as well as socially. Some kids were shy at the beginning of the year, they said, and now are quick to offer hugs.

"It's unbelievable what five minutes a day can do," said Jokela.

Both Jokela and Apland agreed that one on one time with students outside of a classroom environment helps the children progress.

In addition to the one on one sessions, the 'Grandmas' help out in the kindergarten and first grade classrooms. They assist with reading, numbers or preparing for art projects.


Working at the school each day is beneficial for the kids, as well as rewarding for the 'Grandmas.'

Apland said, "I love working with kids." Since her own kids have grown and moved away, she enjoys the opportunity to be in the school. She has been volunteering as a foster grandma for five years.

Jokela said she became a volunteer following her retirement from an 18-year career at the Elders' Home. Retirement isn't all it's cracked up to be, Jokela said. She likes having, "something to do and to feel like we are doing something useful."

"We get so many hugs," she added. "I guess we look like grandmas."

The Central Minnesota Foster Grandparent program is a Catholic Charities group.

Patty Jokela and LaVonne Apland are volunteers with the Central Minnesota Foster Grandparent program. Not pictured is their fellow 'Grandma,' Kaye Albin. Connie Vandermay/FOCUS

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