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STEP volunteers do it for the kids

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When Bill and Carol Ruyle moved to New Richmond they were looking for ways to learn more about the community. Now, they're some of the most dedicated volunteers the New Richmond School District has.

The Ruyles said they had always considered volunteering but after meeting Morrie Veilleux, New Richmond district administrator, everything fell into place.

The two joined the Vision 20/20 group in New Richmond as a way to learn about the community in a short amount of time, said Carol.

"It was through attending those meetings that we met Morrie," Bill said.

At the time, Veilleux was in the process of proposing the $92 million referendum and while the Ruyles were in favor of the referendum, they also expressed their concern over what it would mean for property taxes.

"That's when he told us about his idea for the Senior Tax Exchange Program (STEP)," Bill said. "With our backgrounds, he thought we would be ideal for that."

It wasn't long after the discussion with Veilleux that the program began and the Ruyles were some of the first to apply.

STEP volunteers usually donate 78 hours of time per year in the schools in exchange for a break on their property taxes. For the Ruyles, who both spend about 10 hours at the schools per week, reaching those 78 hours (or 39 hours for each Bill and Carol) is a breeze.

"Within a month's time we have our hours in," he said. "With or without the tax break, we do this because we want to."

Bill works with children at Paperjack Elementary as an assistant to Jan Strandemo, Paperjack Elementary's reading specialist.

"I worked with Jan that first year and after that I asked to be permanently assigned to her," he said.

Bill said Strandemo's teaching style resonates with him and he can see the impact it has on the kids.

For example, while the class is focused on reading, Strandemo also requires the students to keep a journal where they write about the stories they read, pick a favorite sentence from the book and draw illustrations.

During the 2011-12 school year, Bill said it was particularly rewarding to work with fourth-grader Jacob Nelson.

Nelson, who was able to meet and exceed all his reading goals this year, also worked on a special project with Bill to showcase some of the cartoon animal drawings he did in Strandemo's class.

Together with Bill, Nelson was able to create a shadowbox that looked like a circus wagon and doubles as a stage Nelson can use for puppet shows.

Bill said it was one of his favorite memories of his volunteer work.

"It was like working with another designer," he said. "It was an equal effort."

Bill said it's the one-on-one work with students that motivates him to return year after year.

Bill said he believes many of the children look up to him because he's another male role model in the school.

"The principal, custodian and the guidance counselor are the only males in the school," he said. "I'm another male and I like to read."

Carol's background as a library cataloger made her a perfect fit for the middle school.

Although she doesn't work directly with students, she said her time is spent working as an assistant to Patty Van Nevel, media center specialist. The majority of her work has been matching various library books to the students' Accelerated Reader tests.

For example, Carol said each book correlates to an AR test. Her job as volunteer is to label the books with the number correlating to the AR test.

"In my first two years as a volunteer I had my hands on 1,500 books," she said.

In the process, Carol said she also identifies severely damaged books - those with broken bindings and torn pages - and books that are not current.

"In the process we've gotten the collection tightened up," she said. "It's something that might not have gotten done otherwise because Patty just doesn't have the time."

In addition to her duties in the library, Carol said she was approached last year to help start a knitting club at the middle school. Known as the Knit Wits, Carol said the group created a quilt from various knit squares the students created.

"That's just been a lot of fun," she said.

The Ruyles said they have no plans to stop volunteering any time soon.

"Everyone has just been so wonderful and respectful," Bill said. "The kids are respectful and the staff is respectful. They treat us as colleagues and that's a lot of the appeal. Even my nametag says Mr. Ruyle."

For more information on the STEP program or to apply as a volunteer for the 2012-13 school year, contact New Richmond Community Education 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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