Connecting seniors with struggling students makes lifelong impact – in the classroom and beyond

Erin Walloch knows a little something about the value of intergenerational relationships.

Erin Walloch

In classrooms across Dakota, Scott and Ramsey counties, Walloch has been connecting seniors with young people as Program Manager of “Learning Buddies,” an initiative that matches seniors with struggling students in reading, math, science and art. Since 1997, the program has served 60,000 students and logged more than 100,000 volunteer hours.

Throughout the school year, elementary students and seniors work together individually or in groups on classwork, while sharing experiences and building new relationships.

“We want students’ academics to get better and improve and have a positive school experience, but we also know that having someone ask, ‘How is your day?’ or ‘How did that test go?’ is important,” Walloch says. “Those two components are at the heart of the program.”

Learning Buddies is a part of DARTS, a nonprofit organization providing personalized and professional services for older Minnesota adults and their loved ones. Walloch, a former kindergarten teacher with a degree in multicultural education, has been leading the program for the past six years.

“Parents and schools can’t always do it all, and the schools really appreciate extra hands on deck with trained volunteers,” she says. “Ultimately, when we have been in communities for as long as we have, it’s a generation of students that have had extra support and when they become adults, it carries forward into the work they do. It all connects.”

Walloch says she deeply values education and has a passion for engaging her community. Through Learning Buddies, she gets to do both.

“This is my dream job,” says Walloch, whose efforts were recently highlighted in the Star Tribune. “It’s a compilation of all the things that I love, and I want to do this until I retire then I’ll be a Learning Buddy, that’s my goal.”

Each year, Walloch meets with new Learning Buddies applicants and returning ones as well. Many of the volunteers express their personal connection with the students, revealing how their own past struggles in education led them to offer help to current students.

And senior adults get a chance to feel like they can continue to be an integral part of the community, Walloch says. “It’s a chance to give back,” she says, adding that “we all have something to offer at all ages.”

Walloch encourages Minnesota seniors to get involved in their communities and regularly offers advice on how to take that first step.

“Reach out,” she says. “It can change your life as well as the lives around you. Don’t be afraid, be the lifelong learner.”

You can learn more about getting involved in the Learning Buddies program by visiting their website at Dartsconnects.org/learning-buddies/.

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