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Senior citizens volunteer to relieve tax burden

New Richmond senior citizens are making a difference in New Richmond schools -- not just in improved grades but in lives.

In 2007, the New Richmond School District started the Senior Tax Exchange Program (STEP), a program designed to help relieve seniors of property tax burdens in exchange for volunteer hours.

For each hour worked, seniors can earn $6.50 - with a maximum of $507 per household (78 hours).

"Most seniors will start for the reimbursement but they find they're getting more than just the money," said Cheryl Emerson, director of Community Ed and STEP coordinator.

Phil Nelson worked in Bill Knutson's fifth grade class this year and the students could not have been more thrilled.

"It's like having a second teacher," said Alex Bains. "He helped us when Mr. Knutson was gone and helped us out with math and fractions."

"He helped me with my times tables," Chris Anez said. "He went in the hallway and studied hard with me."

Those raving reviews confirm that the program is making a difference and bettering the lives of students, Emerson said.

"It's all about the kids and the impact our STEP workers have on them," she said.

For the younger students, STEP workers tend to be viewed as the class grandparents.

"We have a lot of snowbirds," Emerson said. "When they leave for the winter, a lot of them miss the kids so they'll write letters and keep in touch."

For the older kids, STEP workers act as an extra set of ears, eyes and hands and can offer an alternative way of learning.

"I really enjoyed working with (them)," Nelson said of the fifth-graders. "A's and B's were the goal. Not everyone is going to get there, but we're going to get pretty darn close."

As an incentive to get good grades, Nelson created "Nelson bucks." The students were able to earn the "money" by completing homework on time, practicing good study habits, good manners and meeting accelerated math and reading objectives. At the end of the year the students were able to use their "Nelson bucks" to "buy" items during a live auction that Nelson held in the classroom.

The elementary schools have the largest concentration of STEP workers, Emerson said. The middle school and high school also have a few.

Seniors are placed at a level their comfortable with, Emerson said.

"We try to match STEP volunteers and teachers," she said. "It's like a good marriage."

The application asks seniors what their interests are, what level they'd like to be placed at and what their experience is.

"We have lots of experience and a variety of backgrounds in our schools," Emerson said. "We have retired principals, teachers, bankers, executives..."

The STEP program doesn't benefit only students, Emerson said. Staff and volunteers also get something out of it.

For the seniors, working in the schools really keeps them up to date with how things are changing in the schools.

"It really gives them a better understanding," Emerson said.

For the staff, STEP volunteers make a world of difference, she said.

"The staff really love having the workers there," Emerson said. "Once they have them it's hard to give them up."

One common misconception is that STEP workers take paid positions away, but it's simply not true, Emerson said.

"No positions have been eliminated or replaced because of our program," she said.

All money used to fund the program comes from the Community Ed budget.

Space is limited as a set number of volunteers are accepted into the STEP program each year. To apply for the fall STEP program, contact Community Ed at 715-243-7421.

Jackie Grumish
Jackie Grumish has been a reporter with the New Richmond News since 2008. She holds degrees in journalism and fine art from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. Before coming to New Richmond, Jackie worked as the city government reporter at a daily newspaper in Aberdeen, S.D. 
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