When Wendy Ellefson called Lake Marion Elementary School to volunteer, she was looking for an opportunity to give back and help students.
“I’ve grown to just love these kids,” Ellefson said.
As it turns out, the students have given back and helped the retired medical center office manager, too.
For the past three years, Ellefson has been working three full days each week at the elementary school. She spends most time in Jennifer Schwebach’s first grade classroom, where she helps students with reading, writing and math.
“That’s very good,” she told one of the girls as she helped her write a birthday card June 5 for a classmate who will be celebrating over the summer.
For Ellefson, seeing the students grow in their reading and math skills is rewarding, but she also enjoys seeing students’ personalities continue to develop.
“To see them grow as little people with personalities and to come out of their shells is rewarding,” Ellefson said “When that light bulb comes on when they get a new math skill or a new reading word is just amazing.”
“She does it all,” Schwebach said, adding Ellefson has picked up technology she’d never used and helps students with their projects. “She just ran with everything. She’s like my other hand.”
In a classroom with more than 20 first graders, having that extra hand is incredibly helpful. Known affectionately by students as Miss Wendy, Ellefson’s help goes far beyond tutoring in academic subjects. In some ways, it’s the personal connection and encouragement she forms with students that is most important, Schwebach said.
“She’s had so much of an impact with social-emotional [learning] and students who need that extra encouragement and support to help them feel success in their day,” Schwebach said. For example, Ellefson has worked with one student and even had lunch with him because the two made connections with one another, Schwebach said.
“In 18 years of teaching, I’ve never seen someone dedicate so much time as a volunteer,” Schwebach said. “She’s so committed.”
For Ellefson, spending time with students has helped her, too. The Williston, North Dakota native’s husband died six months after the couple moved to Lakeville to be closer to their only daughter and her daughter’s husband.
“I knew I needed something to fill my days and keep me busy,” Ellefson said, nodding toward the students. “It’s been a journey. But this has been the best journey.”
Ellefson also has worked with students in some other classrooms. Some of the students had worked with Ellefson in Kindergarten, when they came to Schwebach’s class for advanced reading. Schwebach said it’s been fun to see Ellefson’s relationships with students continue after they move up to the next grade. Many see her in the hallway and give her hugs, which shows just how powerful Ellefson’s encouragement has been for students, too.
“The kids invite me to their baseball and basketball games, and I go to some of them in the evening,” Ellefson said. “I’m excited to watch them grow and maybe play high school sports and go watch them compete against other teams.”
The relationship is one that is special for Schwebach, too. From time to time, the two will have dinner. Come fall, that may require a little more planning: Schwebach is one of nine instructional/data support specialists, who are teachers who coach other teachers.
The change is a little bittersweet for both women.
“I’ll be back next year, but I’ll miss her for sure,” Ellefson said.
Ellefson said she most looks forward to helping Schwebach and seeing students smile and be kind to one another.
“I hope I’ve made a difference for these classes… so each child has a chance to learn or get it,” Ellefson said.
Ellefson encouraged others to consider volunteering.
“Do it. I think as we get older our lives can get kind of boring, and the kids just brighten your day and give you a bit of energy,” Ellefson said. “There’s what we can teach them, but they can also teach us.”