Grandma Helen Bartle answered an ad in her local newspaper in 1997 and became a foster grandparent, working with countless students to develop their skills with the heart of a “grandma.” Now in her 21st year, she was the very first foster grandparent in Motley. Helen started her tenure at an age when most people retired; she turns 88 years young in November.

“I encourage people to try it,” she said. “I enjoy being a foster grandparent too much (to stop); I don’t mind giving that time. Even at my age, helping the kids feels good.”

Helen Bartle, 80, works with a couple of fourth grade students at Motley Elementary. Bartle has been a foster grandparent for 21 years. Contributed photo

After working with first-graders for 19 years, Helen is now in her second year of working with fourth-grade students. It was a big change, but it is working well for her. Sometimes the kids read to her and sometimes she keeps them on-task.

“As a foster grandparent, you are giving a child who needs extra help a better chance at learning,” said Helen. “We don’t actually do teaching. What’s needed is a little push once in a while. Sometimes they just need to talk.”

During the 2016-17 school year, 192 foster grandparents served with Catholic Charities’ Central MN Foster Grandparent Program. The group served 134,360 hours, working with 8,778 children. Teachers and staff reported that 88 percent of the students served demonstrated improved math and/or literacy skills.

New foster grandparent volunteers set their own schedule with a minimum of 15 hours per week and a maximum of 40 hours. Helen has cut back from 35 hours per week to 22 hours. New volunteers receive training and then attend meetings once a month.

Teachers working with foster grandparents are given a guideline sheet reminding them of the responsibilities and limitations of the volunteers.

“For example, we’re not supposed to even verbally scold or discipline a student; that’s for the teacher to do,” said Helen. “We can’t do the work for them.”

The grandparents follow a strict privacy policy. They are not allowed to tell anyone anything that they hear from a student unless the child could be in a situation where they could be hurt.

“Sometimes it’s so hard to listen when the younger ones talk about family things,” said Helen.

There are many benefits of being a foster grandparent. The most important is the sense of purpose and accomplishment about the work. Other benefits include: tax-exempt stipend, mileage assistance, daily meal (when available), paid holidays, stipend time off, education and training, accident and liability insurance while on-site and an annual physical exam.

“’Grandma’ Helen is a super volunteer. She always participates at our in-service trainings, asking questions to help clarify important points or making sure everybody understands,” said Jon Knopik, her area supervisor. “Her paperwork is always returned on time and completed neatly. During site visits she can be found circulating the room helping students one on one, being that extra set of eyes on the playground during recess or even assisting students in lunchroom.”

Some of the teachers Grandma Helen has worked with have said about her: “Children love to read and do their homework with Grandma Helen;” “She is very positive and helpful, always on time;” “Children’s work and attitudes improve when they work with Grandma Helen;” and “Grandma treats all students fairly and with kindness.”

“She is well-liked by school staff as well as students,” Knopik said. “In a word, she is reliable and serves as a role model for others. She is the area’s longest-tenured volunteer.”

Helen keeps to a very active lifestyle by gardening, doing needlework, playing in a dart league, going four-wheeling and other activities. She also has two dogs, raises laying hens and usually has a horse. She has no plans to quit being a foster grandparent.

“As long as I’m able, I’ll continue with it,” she said. “I’ll be helping the kids as long as I keep driving!”