LARIMORE, N.D. — Everyone in town knows 73-year-old Gayle Friederich as Grandma Gayle, especially the children at the local elementary school.

Six years ago, she became a foster grandparent with Tri-Valley Senior Programs where she helps children learn to read, write and do arithmetic.

When the foster grandparent program was terminated about two years ago in eastern North Dakota, she volunteered to stay on without the $3-an-hour pay. During the coronavirus pandemic, she continued to help children learn, first through Zoom and then from “my own little room,” Friederich said.

“The kids come to me and read, or we do whatever it is they need to do,” she said. “For the kids and myself, it’s very rewarding. It keeps me young.”

Recently, the foster grandparent program sponsored primarily by AmeriCorps Senior Corps returned to eastern North Dakota, and Principal Kylie Swanson said Friederich is all that the school of 236 elementary school students need.

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Always dressed to impress, complete with long, painted fingernails, makeup and jewelry, “She reminds me of the Maxine Hallmark card, the little old lady pointing at all the kids,” Swanson said.

“She is a very adamant lady, and we love that about her. I think ultimately the children are good for her and she’s good for the children, and you see that in their everyday actions," he said. "When she goes to a store, it’s 'Grandma Gayle! Grandma Gayle!' I don’t know what we’d do without her. We are lucky."

Friederich started teaching 4-year-old children.

“I had never been in a school other than going to school. It was just marvelous,” she said. “But my back isn’t at the four-year-old height, so I had to move on. Now I spend most of my time working in a first grade room."

She works three days a week at Larimore Elementary School, and when COVID-19 case numbers were high in 2020 she learned how to use Zoom to help students, but she prefers being in person.

“It’s hard now because of the pandemic. It was not like being there at all, completely different, although it was better than nothing. But I am so glad to be back,” Friedrich said.

Grandma Mary Thorstad. Special to The Forum
Grandma Mary Thorstad. Special to The Forum

Although the foster grandparent program disappeared in North Dakota for two years, across the Red River in Minnesota, the program has Grandma Gayle’s counterpart, known locally as Grandma Mary.

Grandma Mary, or Mary Thorstad, now 84 years old, became involved with the Magelssen Elementary School in Fosston, Minn., in 1999 after she took early retirement from an office job.

“I needed something to do, and I saw a little tiny ad in the classified paper and I followed up on that and it led to just the most marvelous thing that could be done for a person at retirement age,” Thorstad said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic kept her away from school, she helped children learn to read, write and do arithmetic about 40 hours a week.

“As the school day starts up, I help the teacher prepare a little bit, and then if we might have reading or sometimes kids have trouble finding a page number, or they might come sit at my table if the wiggles are too much,” Thorstad said.

Over the years, she has helped kids who could barely read become high school valedictorians, and she takes special delight when, sometimes, they become teachers.

“Sometimes, grandma’s magic table does help,” Thorstad said.

“Everybody calls her Grandma Mary. To all the staff, to all the students, she’s known as Grandma Mary, for sure,” said Principal Dan Boushee.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Thorstad has had to keep away, but Boushee has hope that she can come back soon.

“It’s been put on pause, but as things are opening up, hopefully before the end of the school year if foster grandparents feel comfortable, they can come back,” Boushee said.

Eastern North Dakota’s foster grandparent program was rekindled in the middle of a worldwide pandemic because students need their tutors, said Penny Millspaugh, the program manager for eastern North Dakota.

“The biggest problem right now is getting agencies and schools to open their doors; everyone is COVID weary,” Millspaugh said. “My hope is to get folks ready and on board for summer school, and day cares are always a possibility, too, while the other option is up and ready for fall.”

“The Tri-Valley Senior Programs department is excited to expand its current foster grandparent program into eastern North Dakota,” said Marley Melbye, Tri-Valley Senior Programs Director. “We will be able to play a part in improving the quality of life for our senior volunteers in North Dakota who have a passion for today’s youth.”

The foster grandparent program in eastern North Dakota will serve Barnes, Benson, Cass, Cavalier, Grand Forks, Griggs, Pierce, Ramsey, Richland, Sargent, Stutsman, Traill and Walsh counties.

Through the program, adults age 55 and over help children in their communities develop academic and life skills critical to their development and future success. They serve as tutors, mentors and role models to children at risk of falling behind in school and to those with physical disabilities and/or other special needs.