St. Cloud man sees benefits for kids, himself in volunteer opportunities
By Natalie M. Rotunda
Don Oestreich of St. Cloud retired as a computer programmer when he was 63. Before long, he began hanging out at Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud. He originally came to play pool and connect with other seniors, which he continues to do; but his routine now involves helping kids through multiple volunteer opportunities.
“I was already coming over here and playing pool five days a week,” he said, “and somebody talked me into checking out RSVP. I interviewed with them, they gave me a brochure, and I checked the things on it that I liked to do.”
Of the many volunteering choices available, such as visiting a homebound senior, helping at a local food shelf, or listening to a child read, tutoring students in reading sparked Don’s interest.
For a little over a dozen years, Don has been heading to the South Side Boys & Girls Club in St. Cloud from 3:30 to 5 p.m.
“Six kids, (grades) K-5, read with me, individually, for 15-20 minutes each,” he said. Besides becoming better readers, kids had another incentive – if they read a certain number of books in a specified time period, they earned an invitation to come watch a movie and eat popcorn. A fun win-win opportunity.
The reading program was put on hold when COVID-19 arrived, but Don is optimistic that it will resume soon. “I expect to go back when things open up again.”
Madison School in St. Cloud was another site where Don helped second graders with their reading.
“I was like a teacher’s aide,” he said. “The kids and I would go to the library where they read to me.”
You can’t help get to know the kids, Don said, and he remembered one little girl who was a good, but very slow, reader. Her slowness raised a red flag, and he mentioned it to her teacher.
“It turns out she couldn’t see well,” Don said. That red flag led to her getting a pair of eyeglasses. Seeing better, she became a faster reader. A happy ending for everyone concerned!
Since Don is a regular at Whitney Senior Center, an RSVP staff member who knew him approached him about a new online tutoring program launching in January 2021.
“She asked me to tutor her second grade son in reading. I told her, yes,” he said.
Don learned that Around Cloud Tutors offers tutoring in reading, math, science, and language to K-12 students. The program is a joint venture between RSVP and the United Way Partners For Student Success and the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation. Students sign up at no cost on the online portal, choosing the subject(s) they want help with, a tutor or tutors, and day(s) and time that works best for them. They then connect for 30-minutes per session online over Zoom.
To prepare volunteers for their tutor roles, they underwent several training sessions put on by RSVP. In the program’s first three months, 33 tutors spent 257 hours with students. The program has room for more than three times that number.
Don completed the training, and he and Jude scheduled themselves to meet twice a week, Don from his home computer and Jude from his. He’s Don’s only student, at present.
If Don had only one motto for his mentoring, it would be this: “We’re here for fun, not work.” Besides taking the pressure off student and tutor, those six words set a positive tone for their sessions.
To inject a little fun, Don looks for ways to delight his student. For instance -- Jude had a book on dragons he wanted to read. It just so happened that Don had a dragon from his photo collection. He uploaded it onto the Zoom screen, and it remained there as backdrop until Jude finished the book.
“I’ve used other backgrounds, too,” Don said. “I have lots of other photos from my wife’s and my travels that I can put up.”
Don assumes Jude’s books come from the school or public library. But, he said, “I don’t have a copy of them.”
What he does have is a successful system that works this way. “If Jude gets stuck on a word, I ask him to spell the first three letters, and he sounds them out. If he’s still stuck, then I ask him to spell the next few letters and sound them out, and he usually gets it. If it’s a longer word, I give it to him.”
Student and tutor have something to look forward to when 4 p.m. rolls around twice a week. Fun, not work. And the 30 minutes pass quickly.
Of the hours Jude is spending online with Don, he said, “I like reading with Don. He helps me when I get stuck on a word and is nice. Don uses cool pictures in his background, too.”
Jude’s mother likes what she’s seeing from the sessions. “We have two working parents in our home. Around Cloud Tutors has been a great opportunity to build on Jude’s reading skills, allowing him to read out loud for 30 minutes to a live person.
“Teachers ask that students read at least 20 minutes a day outside of school. This program has allowed us to sign Jude up for reading sessions right after school and holds us accountable to get his reading time in accordingly. We know that Jude has a compassionate listener on the other end to guide, troubleshoot on difficult words and ask thoughtful questions related to the story to build on comprehension skills. We have used several of the K-5 Reading Assistance volunteers through Around Cloud Tutors site. They are all wonderful, caring people!”
When day is done and their commitments have been met, Don, a Little Falls’ native, and his wife, Nancy, like to head for the open road.
“We like to travel,” he says. “We drive and sleep overnight in tents and cook our meals around a campfire. We drive because we like to stop and see all the things you can see. I mark our stops on a map.” Their two children and their grandchildren live in Florida and Oregon.
Don’s worklife after earning a business degree was a varied and fascinating one. At one time, he had worked as a draftsman for Brunswick’s boat division. Around 1980, his interest in drawing would resurface in a different way.
His return to drawing involved a challenge... and Don likes challenges. He was interested in becoming a pen-and-ink artist of renderings of people’s homes, farmsteads and other buildings. He taught himself, through reading one or two books each week, how and what to do to achieve his goal. He practiced what he learned from his reading. When he was ready to launch his new business, he walked door-to-door, handing out business cards. In the seven years he was in business, Don had taken on over 300 commissions. “It’s very labor-intensive,” he said of the work. A big supporter of public television, one year, he created renderings of peoples’ homes. All of the proceeds went to PBS’s silent auction fundraiser.
Don last worked as a computer programmer. He didn’t self-teach, as he had done before. Instead, he took a one-year course at St. Cloud Technical School. For six years, he worked various projects in the Twin Cities.
Why does this active retiree like to volunteer? “When you retire,” he said, ”it’s nice to have a purpose.”
The person who had nudged Don to sign up years earlier couldn’t have known that, today, there are lots of Stearns County students and their families who are grateful for that push.
Don also continues to come to Whitney Senior Center regularly and is always up for a game of pool. He and other members of the Pool Club meet for games in the Billiards Room.
“We had 40 people last year, and I expect they’ll come back when things open up a bit more,” Don said. “About 20 have already come back.” Don is president of the Club.
If you want to learn more about the volunteering opportunities for those age 55+, contact Jennifer Wucherer, RVSP Program Director, at (320) 255-7295, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. They’ll match your time, interests, aspirations, experience and skill set with opportunities throughout Benton, Sherburne, Stearns and Wright Counties.