A piece of original artwork dries on a paint-splattered easel.
Snowflakes made out of coffee filters dangle from the ceiling.
And the walls are covered with alphabet letters, numbers, colorful shapes – even a missing tooth chart.
But nothing says “kindergarten” in Laura Roberts’ classroom at East Olympia Elementary School more than the silver-haired woman sitting at the back table.
Her name is Laure Merrick – although everybody knows her as “Grandma.”
“She helps us with everything,” explained 6-year-old Kendra Stafford.
Roberts recently awarded Merrick, 65, of Yelm, a certificate of appreciation at a Tumwater School Board meeting for having a positive effect on children at the school.
She began volunteering in Roberts’ classroom three years ago, when her granddaughter, Kendall, was in kindergarten. And she has worked in the classroom ever since, helping welcome new students and their parents on the first day of school, chaperoning field trips to the pumpkin patch and Point Defiance Zoo and leading reading groups and art projects in the classroom.
“I do whatever Mrs. Roberts needs,” Merrick said. “I say my granddaughter passed, and I flunked.”
On a recent morning, Merrick helped the children decorate mail boxes for their Valentine’s Day party, which she’ll help with, too.
“She does fun activities with us,” said Ru’ya Russell, 5.
Merrick worked for Albertsons for 39 years. She left the company in 2005, after managing the Albertsons grocery store in Lacey.
She said she originally got involved at the school to spend more time with her grandchildren – Casey, who is in fourth grade, and Kendall, who is now in second grade.
“I wasn’t quite ready to retire,” Merrick said.
But she quickly learned that Roberts and the full-time kindergartners could use all of the help they could get, especially in math, reading and social skills.
“They learn so much,” Merrick said. “It’s not like when I was in kindergarten.”
For many of the students, Merrick serves as a much-needed older-adult role model, Roberts said.
Some of the children don’t have grandparents who live nearby, or don’t know their grandparents at all.
“Families are so spread out,” Merrick said. “I think being here fills a need for them.”
She said she doesn’t deserve any special attention because there are many other volunteers who spend far more time at the school.
“I think more people need to volunteer,” she said. “I know every school needs it.”
Besides, Merrick said, one of the main reasons that she volunteers is completely selfish: She’s flooded with hugs and attention by kids who absolutely adore her.
“There’s so much love,” she said. “Kids at this age are so honest. It’s just joyful.”
Roberts said it’s not uncommon for the students to get attached to classroom volunteers. Years ago, she had “Grandma Bonnie,” who helped in her classroom at Littlerock Elementary School.
“I had a dad who came in a couple of years ago when I taught his son, and the kids called him ‘Papa,’” she said. “The kids loved that.”
And now she has Merrick, and Roberts joked that she’s not going to let her go.
“She’s really wonderful,” Roberts said. “We love our grandma.”
Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 firstname.lastname@example.org