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Shaping the future: Esther Ernst — Sibley-Ocheyedan’s ‘Grandma E’ — receives Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award

SIBLEY, Iowa -- Some teachers call her a superstar, others call her a celebrity. Esther Ernst, widely known as "Grandma E," humbly responds, "I just like working with children."...

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Preschool students play with Grandma E’s homemade Play-Doh on the last day of school. Alex Chhith/Daily Globe

SIBLEY, Iowa - Some teachers call her a superstar, others call her a celebrity. Esther Ernst, widely known as “Grandma E,” humbly responds, “I just like working with children.” The 81-year-old received the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award from the Foster Grandparent Program in a ceremony last week in Sioux City, Iowa. Members (often called foster grandparents) of the program volunteer in their communities to help children learn. They are eligible for the award after they have completed 4,000 hours of community service. In addition to the award, Ernst also received a letter signed by President Barack Obama and an eagle pen.
During her 10 years of volunteering in the Sibley-Ocheyedan school district, school officials estimate she has helped approximately 250 students.“I was very surprised when they called my name. I thought, ‘No, I don’t have 4,000 hours,’” Ernst said tearfully. “It was just exciting.”She has lived in Sibley since she was 12 years old, and started volunteering in preschool teacher Heidi Douma’s classroom after she retired. During the school year, Ernst volunteers approximately 7 1/2 hours a day and usually works Monday through Friday, though sometimes she has days off when the teachers don’t need the extra help.“I just love kids; I would do anything that would make a child’s life better,” she said. “Smaller children need a lot of extra care.” Ernst sometimes helps teach when the students are divided into groups of three or four children, and other times she helps them learn how to write their names. Just having a conversation with the children helps them learn skills like asking questions and talking, she said. “I never know what they are going to say next,” Ernst added, chuckling. “It’s just so much fun to see them grow,” she continued. “You won’t believe how much they have progressed.” Ernst added that students learn how to write their first name in the first half of the year and their last name the latter half. She also advises parents to read with their children at home and to help them with their schoolwork. “You can tell which kids get help at home,” Ernst said. “It makes a difference when they start school.”In addition to her work at the school, Ernst also volunteers at the local nursing home by helping out with bingo games and sing-a-longs. She also volunteers at her church. In her spare time she likes to sew, garden and quilt. Teachers and administrators at the school have been very supportive, Ernst said, adding that her husband passed away in December and that her three grandchildren live in Wisconsin and North Carolina. “Grandma E has a heart bigger than anyone I know,” Douma said. “She is truly a godly woman who wants to serve God by serving others. She is loved. “She is such a special lady,” she continued. The Foster Grandparent Program of Greater Siouxland meets once a week to help educate seniors about issues like wills and caring for children with disabilities, Ernst said. For more information about the program, go to rvrseniorvolunteerprograms.org.SIBLEY, Iowa - Some teachers call her a superstar, others call her a celebrity. Esther Ernst, widely known as “Grandma E,” humbly responds, “I just like working with children.”The 81-year-old received the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award from the Foster Grandparent Program in a ceremony last week in Sioux City, Iowa. Members (often called foster grandparents) of the program volunteer in their communities to help children learn. They are eligible for the award after they have completed 4,000 hours of community service. In addition to the award, Ernst also received a letter signed by President Barack Obama and an eagle pen.
During her 10 years of volunteering in the Sibley-Ocheyedan school district, school officials estimate she has helped approximately 250 students.“I was very surprised when they called my name. I thought, ‘No, I don’t have 4,000 hours,’” Ernst said tearfully. “It was just exciting.”She has lived in Sibley since she was 12 years old, and started volunteering in preschool teacher Heidi Douma’s classroom after she retired. During the school year, Ernst volunteers approximately 7 1/2 hours a day and usually works Monday through Friday, though sometimes she has days off when the teachers don’t need the extra help.“I just love kids; I would do anything that would make a child’s life better,” she said. “Smaller children need a lot of extra care.” Ernst sometimes helps teach when the students are divided into groups of three or four children, and other times she helps them learn how to write their names.Just having a conversation with the children helps them learn skills like asking questions and talking, she said. “I never know what they are going to say next,” Ernst added, chuckling. “It’s just so much fun to see them grow,” she continued. “You won’t believe how much they have progressed.” Ernst added that students learn how to write their first name in the first half of the year and their last name the latter half. She also advises parents to read with their children at home and to help them with their schoolwork. “You can tell which kids get help at home,” Ernst said. “It makes a difference when they start school.”In addition to her work at the school, Ernst also volunteers at the local nursing home by helping out with bingo games and sing-a-longs. She also volunteers at her church. In her spare time she likes to sew, garden and quilt. Teachers and administrators at the school have been very supportive, Ernst said, adding that her husband passed away in December and that her three grandchildren live in Wisconsin and North Carolina. “Grandma E has a heart bigger than anyone I know,” Douma said. “She is truly a godly woman who wants to serve God by serving others. She is loved. “She is such a special lady,” she continued. The Foster Grandparent Program of Greater Siouxland meets once a week to help educate seniors about issues like wills and caring for children with disabilities, Ernst said. For more information about the program, go to rvrseniorvolunteerprograms.org.

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