Learning Buddies effort celebrates 20 years

Program pairs seniors, elementary students to improve academic proficiency

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Maureen Cannon of Eagan has been a volunteer with DARTS Learning Buddies since the program’s inception 20 years ago. Each week Cannon meets with Winona Rahman and Nathan Andrewsen and other first-graders at Glacier Hills Elementary School in Eagan to help them improve their literacy skills. (Photo by Jessica Harper)

Eagan resident Maureen Cannon has dedicated much of her life to helping children in need. As a social worker for 35 years, Cannon worked with children and families to resolve abusive situations.

When she retired from the Minnesota Department of Human Services in 1996, Cannon knew she wanted to continue to work with children. So when she heard that DARTS was teaming up with local school districts to tutor young students, Cannon jumped at the chance to be one of the program’s first tutors.

Two decades later, Cannon continues to tutor children through DARTS Learning Buddies program, which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary during the 2016-17 school year.

The intergenerational program pairs older adults with elementary students to help improve students’ proficiency in reading, math and science. Volunteers meet with students one-one-one each week to help with school work while providing a positive adult role model.

The program was made possible by financial support from Flint Hills Resources, which has contributed more than $500,000 to the Learning Buddies program since its creation.

What began with a Cannon and a few other volunteers at Glacier Hills Elementary School in Eagan has since grown into a program that has more than 130 active volunteers in 46 Dakota and Scott county elementary schools. The program also expanded its subject matter from literacy tutoring to include assistance in math and science.

Glacier Hills first-graders Winona Rahman and Nathan Andrewsen always look forward to their weekly visit with Cannon. They excitedly pulled a small stack of reading books from their bags on Tuesday afternoon and took turns reading to Cannon.

It’s this enthusiasm for learning, that drew her to working with first-graders, Cannon said.

“They absorb everything like a sponge. It’s wonderful to watch,” she said.

The program has helped students improve proficiency and confidence, said Ann Kalb, a social worker at Glacier Hills who helped found the program.

Learning Buddies not only benefits students but also the volunteers by providing an outlet where they can contribute and find fulfillment, Kalb said.

“The seniors look forward to it working with the kids and to sharing their experiences,” Kalb said. “We have seniors who have experiences in all different areas of expertise that they are able to share with students.”

In addition to reading with Winona, Nathan and other students in Stephanie Foley’s first-grade class, Cannon, 87, shares stories about her family and world travels.

She recently returned from a trip to Ireland where she stayed in a cottage where her grandfather was raised.

Cannon recalled that upon sharing her story with the students one child innocently asked whether her grandfather still lived there.
“I find this age group to be delightful because they don’t have a concept of distance or time, and don’t know how cruel the world is,” she said.

For more information or to volunteer with DARTS Learning Buddies program, visit www.darts1.org.