By Tom Larson
As the kindergartners file out of their classroom, they make sure to first wave goodbye to the 80-year-old woman seated on a tiny chair next to a kid-sized table.
"'Bye, Grandma B."
And Evelyn Bolluyt smiles and bids them a fond farewell, too.
"I always say, 'I've got 120 grandkids,' " she said.
Bolluyt is in her eighth year with the Central Minnesota Foster Grandparent Program, the last four years working in the Morris Area Elementary School.
The Foster Grandparents offer guidance, tutoring skills, as well as just having fun with kids while serving as an adult mentor.
After raising her family with her husband of 61 years, Nick, it's not the kind of job Grandma B expected she'd be doing.
"At the time I started, I never thought I would be working in a school," Bolluyt said. "When you raise seven kids, you think the last place you would want to work is in a school. But it's such a rewarding job. I just love all these kids and I love working with them."
Bolluyt lived almost her entire life in the Hancock and Morris area, save a few years in California. She raised her children and worked on the farm.
Once her children were on their own, Grandma B grew a little restless.
"I was very bored sitting around the house," she said. "One day, my daughter said, 'Mom, have I got the job for you.' "
Her daughter, Leanne Harmsen, works with the developmentally disabled, and through her work met a woman whose mother was in the Foster Grandparents program.
It seemed like a natural fit, considering Grandma B has her kids, 15 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. Bolluyt called to ask about the program, and from that point the process didn't take long.
"I interviewed on a Friday and I started work that Monday," she said.
Grandma B started in the Starbuck Elementary School with Head Start students, then split time with kindergartners and 1st graders. Since moving to the Morris Area district, Bolluyt has worked with kindergartners, 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders, and with students who need special attention.
"It's pretty hard to find me most times," she said with a laugh. "I'm all over the building."
Bolluyt is among 50 Foster Grandparents working in the West Central Minnesota area, and they gather for in-service and socializing once a month.
"We all say the same thing," she said. "We're all so glad we decided to do this. I can't think of anything that is this rewarding. The kids are always so glad to see you."
In addition to the school work, there's the social aspect of having a Foster Grandparent in the school. To many kids, Bolluyt is their "school grandma," and the relationships formed are solid. Some of the children might not have grandparents who are still living, or they may live too far away to visit much, she said.
In the last year, Bolluyt has developed macular degeneration, which has limited somewhat the types of activities she can do with the kids.
An avid, life-long reader, Grandma B can no longer read without the help of vision aids. Nonetheless, the school staff, faculty and the students have all helped her cope with her diminished sight.
"Everyone has been very accomodating," she said. "Teachers, staff, they all write big so I can read it. The kids know I can't see well, and I think it's good for them to know about it.
Because her eyes tire easily, Bolluyt has had to cut back on her reading, and she can no longer sew or embroider, which was difficult for her to give up.
But she's not about to give up doing what Grandma B does best. She can get around the building just fine, and she will be bringing in some of her visual aids so she can keep pace with what the children are learning. And she can still get the kids' attention with her "talking" watch.
"If I continue to feel as good as I do now," she said, "I'm going to keep going as long as I can."
And Bolluyt would like others to do the same. She works from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day, and she knows there are plenty of people in the community who can, too. The Foster Grandparent program stipulates that members be 60 years or older and be healthy enough to commit an average of 20 hours per week.
"I wonder why more people aren't doing this," Grandma B said with a smile. "How come? Are there no grandparents in Morris?"
To learn more about the West Central Foster Grandparent Program, call (320) 229-4588.