When Newman Catholic kindergartners arrive at school in Mason City, they count on seeing Grandma Kay four mornings a week.
Kay DiMarco, 95, started volunteering at Newman last fall. It's her eighth year working with kindergarten students. For seven years, she volunteered at Madison Elementary.
A neighbor gives DiMarco a ride to school this year. In past years, she'd routinely take the bus.
"She's a really incredible lady and the kids really like her," said Jo Wilder, one of two kindergarten teachers.
Wearing a bright red smock identifying her as a member of the Foster Grandparent Program, Grandma Kay works with students one or two at a time. They practice reading and math skills in fun ways, often utilizing puzzles and games, Wilder said.
On this day, DiMarco watches one student at a time match words printed on orange, red, yellow, green plastic balls with the corresponding home spot in an egg-carton type container.
"Everything they do is fun so the kids like that," DiMarco said. "The kids are really smart. I was surprised that kindergartners can do all this."
As Lily Castle, 5, picks up the balls, identifying the words are, do, one, me, the, for, my, we and places the balls correctly, DiMarco patiently nods and smiles, providing affirmation.
"What was that word?" she asks gently at one point, reminding Castle to speak up a little bit to a grandmother.
When the next girl takes her place, wearing a paper crown, DiMarco looks up, and says warmly, "You're the birthday girl, aren't you!"
The Foster Grandparent Program, based in Charles City, has 82 participants who go out to schools and day care centers in Floyd, Chickasaw, Mitchell and Cerro Gordo counties every day, said Mary Litterer, director. The program has been going for 36 years.
Foster grandparents work with children, often one on one. They may focus on children who are at risk or who have special needs, Litterer said. One important aspect is simply that they develop relationships.
"They can hug the children," Litterer said.
Volunteering with children gives the grandparent a reason to get up in the morning and children regular contact with an adult with lots of life experience, Litterer said.
DiMarco is "very interested in education, that kids get good educations," Litterer said. "She's a very avid reader. She reads a lot."
When she walks through the door in the morning, the whole class says in unison, "Good morning Grandma Kay," said Laura Doerfler, who also teaches kindergarten.
On a recent Wednesday, students thought of words with a short "i'' sound like, then worked on telling time with DiMarco.
"She's very positive, always tells them they're doing a good job," Doerfler said.
A native of Mason City, DiMarco was married 45 years, but her husband's been gone 31 years. Her three surviving children live in Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.
"I've been a dressmaker all my life," DiMarco said.
She used to sew costumes for the theatrical presentations that Holy Family Catholic Church produced for the community known as "Dark Town Varieties." At one time, she remembers sewing costumes for one of "The Music Man" events in Mason City. Meredith Willson told her that she did "a real good job," DiMarco recalled.
Despite her determination, age catches DiMarco off guard sometimes. She smiles as she admits having trouble threading her sewing machine needle the other day, but said she'll just need to pick up some needles with larger eyes.
"She's an inspiration," Litterer said.
The last Thursday of every month, DiMarco misses her volunteer time at school to make breakfast for Grant Village, the senior housing complex where she lives. Each month, she makes enough egg frittata to serve 48 people residents and guests.
On Friday mornings, DiMarco helps with mailings at Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa.
"I never ever thought I would work at the hospital because I do not like to be around sick people," DiMarco said. But she's enjoyed hospital volunteer responsibilities for the past 22 years.