WILLMAR -- Virginia Swanson watched her two young friends make a red and green construction paper chain to decorate the doorway of her Rice Care Center home.

WILLMAR -- Virginia Swanson watched her two young friends make a red and green construction paper chain to decorate the doorway of her Rice Care Center home.

"Now, I want this done right," Swanson said with a smile, a wink and a twinkle in her eye.

Armando Guantello and Martha Ciriaco smiled back and kept working.

At tables nearby, other teenagers, all students from the Area Learning Center in Willmar, built chains and visited with other residents of the nursing home in southwest Willmar.

"I like coming here," said Guantello, 16, of Willmar. "I've learned a lot from Virginia."


Swanson, 88, has told him about her life and her family, he said. She offers advice, too.

"She tells me to be nice, be good," he said. "She reminds me so much of my aunt, because she's so funny."

Swanson said she has lived at Rice for about two years but still misses her home in Benson. A visit from the ALC Service Learning class always brightens her day.

"When I know he comes every once in a while, I've got it made," she said, gesturing toward Guantello. "He's been so nice to me; he's one gentleman."

Swanson wrote a letter to Guantello's parents to tell them what a kind young man he is.

"It's a joy to have them come," said resident Maxine Sagness of Lake Lillian. "It's wonderful."

Joyce Sundberg, 82, of Kerkhoven said she does things with the students she would never do by herself.

Before they had to leave, the students went with their friends to hang the chains across their doorways.


Swanson surveyed her new decoration and said, "Everybody's going to be so jealous."

On other days, the students go to the other end of the age spectrum, playing educational games with first-graders at Kennedy Elementary School. They tailor the games to what the children are learning in class. Lately, the games focus on addition, subtraction, vowels and color/number words.

Andrea Mendoza, 17, played Dice Addition with two boys. They said they liked the game, as they rolled dice, added up their totals and moved to numbered squares around the board.

"I'm not that good at adding," Austin Bredesen said at one point.

"That's OK," Mendoza told him. "That's why we play the game."

When the children tire of one game, "there's plenty to choose from," Mendoza said.

One set of games asks students to match questions and answers on a board. When a child points to a correct answer with a metal pointer, it lights up.

Flip chutes are popular. A flip chute begins its life as a milk or juice carton and ends up a brightly decorated box with seemingly magical powers. Directions for building one can be found on the Internet.


Laminated cards with a question on one side and the answer on the other side are used.

Children use dry-erase markers to add the right vowels to words like fish, tent, bat and fox. They slide the cards into a slot in the box, and the cards shoot out another slot with the correct answer showing.

Giving back

Service Learning is an elective class at the Willmar School District's alternative high school. Marni Myles-Vollan has taught the class for about four years.

The class runs the school store and decides how to use the money from the store. Hot Cheetos and Gatorade are popular there.

The students usually use some of the profits to buy the materials to make their children's games and they make charitable donations, Vollan said. They raised $250 for Hurricane Katrina victims in the store last fall.

In December, the class helped sort toys and other gifts at the Salvation Army. Last fall they raked leaves for some of the school's neighbors in southwest Willmar. Class members shovel snow for people in the neighborhood. They deliver for Meals on Wheels.

"I like going out and helping people," Mendoza said. "I thought about volunteering, but I never had the time. Now, I get an hour out of each day and I get to go help somebody with something."


Stephanie Weisen said she's learned how much a small favor can mean to someone.

"You make their day, like at Rice Care Center," said Gina Diaz, 19. "I like being with the elderly people, because I always used to take care of my grandpa, so I got used to it."

The volunteer work has helped some students with future career decisions, too.

For Ciriaco, 18, who thought she wanted to be a nurse but wasn't sure if she'd be good at it, going to Rice Care has convinced her. "I think I'll do fine in it," she said.

Diaz wanted to be a certified nursing assistant before and is still on that path. Mendoza also plans to study in a medical field, surgical technology, and Maria Lopez, 18, wants to be an obstetrics nurse.

Weisen and Nancy Goodwin, 17, said they had thought about being elementary teachers, but spending time with the high-energy first-grade class has given them second thoughts. "Going to Kennedy has thrown me off," Goodwin said.

Vollan said she recruits some students to her class, if she thinks it's something they may be interested in it. Others hear about it and ask to join. Students in the class are required to sign a contract, agreeing to attend school regularly, to maintain positive attitudes and to encourage positive attitudes in others.

"I never encounter resistance from these kids," Vollan said. "It's fun for me to see their compassionate side."


Teenagers often don't realize the volunteering opportunities available in the community, she said. "There's such value in just donating your time."

"I'm proud of the way our students handle themselves in the community," Vollan said.

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