The Grade 1 class at Sacred Heart School in Wetaskiwin is missing its secret weapon.
Due to COVID-19, school boards across Alberta — and virtually the whole of Canada — decreed that guests and out-of-school volunteers would not be permitted into school buildings as a measure to slow the pandemic’s spread.
This means “Grandma Rose” Kostiuk, 82 years young, has not yet graced her friend Zoria Verhegge’s classroom in 2020-21. For more than 20 years, Kostiuk has been making near-daily morning appearances from 9 to 10 a.m. to help the five- and six-year-old children tackle multiplication tables and learn to read.
An active Catholic Women’s League member, Kostiuk accompanies the students to liturgical services in the school chapel and general school Masses at Sacred Heart Church.
While Kostiuk is sidelined, for now, she still provides spiritual support by praying for all students navigating this tricky school year and by regularly phone conferencing with Verhegge, including for Ukrainian Christmas on Jan. 7 (both are of Ukrainian descent).
Kostiuk is raring to get back into the classroom, when able.
“I am absolutely ready to return when I am allowed. I miss the students, I miss Zoria and I miss the school,” said Kostiuk, who resides with her husband, Howard. “It gives me a purpose to get up in the morning.”
Verhegge, completing her 30th year at Sacred Heart, says she misses her friend’s “lifelong love of learning” and “her natural gift for connecting with each student one on one.”
“She speaks with such love from the heart for all of the students, and she connects with them in a special way,” said Verhegge. “Before the pandemic, when we would have high school students come back and visit us — we’re a K-9 school — they knew who she was right away, and they would offer hugs and hellos right away.”
Patient listening and observation are a couple of the bedrock principles for Kostiuk when she makes her morning visits. The octogenarian employs those personal skills to deduce the most effective method to help each kid learn.
She also approaches her long-term volunteer gig with an empathetic state of mind. After all, she decided to help Grade 1 students read because she vividly recalls her own learning experience in school.
“English was not my first language as my Ukrainian origins meant that Ukrainian was the language spoken in my family’s household,” she said. “I had older siblings, but they did not have time to help me with school work because they all had chores on the farm.
“I was not told how to sound out words and letters. Eventually I learned, but it wasn’t easy. I remember what I needed at that time, so I know what these students need.”
Kostiuk, blessed with five children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, is also acutely aware that kids appreciate when their adult role models are entirely present in a one-on-one situation.
She says she wants to know about each student’s life away from the classroom. And she endeavours to answer all questions posed to her by students with thoughtful, honest candour.
“I’ll be 83 in May, so I look like a typical grandma with grey hair, wrinkles and age spots. They ask me about being old. I say ‘Look at your hand. It is smooth and puffy. Mine is wrinkled and dried out. And that’s OK because God wants us to age.’ ”
Kostiuk would attest that her soul is younger than her actual age and that being in the classroom keeps her young. Though COVID-19 is currently preventing her from that joyful experience, she still utilizes her teaching gift by helping granddaughter Shylee tackle reading comprehension assignments via phone tutoring.
Kostiuk also shared that she loves to be an example of an older person living an active life — she fondly remembers one of her grandchildren reacting in awe when she saw Kostiuk riding a bike a few years ago.