RIO VISTA — When Herky Ostlund’s sister contracted polio more than eight decades ago, it started the 90-year-old Delta native on a path to helping others.
It’s a path the great-grandmother of nine is still following.
In addition to numerous volunteer positions with her church, Ostlund has been a volunteer mentor with the Rio Vista CARE Pals program for 17 years. The 23-year-old, one-on-one mentoring program pairs elementary and middle school children with trained adult volunteers. Ostlund has been “pals” with the same young girl for three years. It’s a child-centered program in which the child guides the activities during the half-hour weekly get-togethers that happen during school hours on the school grounds.
Because of that, when they’re not talking and laughing, the nonagenarian spends a lot of time in the gym while her young friend shoots baskets.
“We have a half an hour and we’re supposed to stay in that, but sometimes we go over (the time),” Ostlund said. “The children are so appreciative of having the one-on-one time with someone. It gives them a half-hour relief out of the classroom. If they’re hyperactive, it’s hard on them. They go back in and they’re happier.”
Ostlund was recently one of five finalists in the San Francisco 49ers Community Quarterback Award Program. The program recognizes those who have demonstrated leadership, dedication and committment to the community.
“Herky is just a great person,” said Toni Rey, the programs coordinator. “(She’s) kind, caring and helpful.”
Ostlund, a 49ers fan, received a plaque at an awards luncheon attended by former and present 49ers players, and at the beginning of the month she was recognized at a pregame ceremony prior to a game between the Niners and the Rams. Her favorite former player, Jerry Rice, was there, too.
“He happened to be coming off the field and he got into a picture with the group,” she said. She laughed and said, “So I got to put my arm around him . . . he’s so cute.”
While she’s pleased at the recognition, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Why me?” she said, when there are so many others who also do a lot to help.
“I do it because I love to do it,” she said. “It seems kind of ridiculous to get an award for something you love doing.”
And for something she grew up doing.
Ostlund, who was born in Lodi but has lived in the Delta regions of Courtland, Walnut Grove and Rio Vista most of her life, said she was 7 when her 8-year-old sister contracted polio. While her sister wasn’t paralyzed, she had trouble doing many things.
“It was my duty to follow her because she fell a lot,” she said. “I started with that, I guess, and I just love babies and people. It just seems to be my personality.”
Ostlund has also tutored students in math, volunteered in convalescent homes and was instrumental in starting a college scholarship program at her church, First Congregational in Rio Vista.
Picking up pennies and other coins from the ground is what started the scholarship program.
“I walk a lot and I’m always finding coins on the street,” she said. “I’d never pass up a penny.”
She began collecting the coins. Now, on the last Sunday of each month, she does a “Pennies from Heaven” march with many putting money in a little pot. She said it’s not only coins in the pot but some $20 bills, too. Since they started the program eight years ago, they’ve sponsored about 50 scholarships and are on their 21st mile of pennies.
“Sixteen pennies to a foot, 5,280 feet in a mile, 84,480 pennies in a mile,” Ostlund said. “So that’s how we calculate how many miles.
“I keep track of that when we have our penny march. I have records back to when we started.”
Ostlund found the Pals program after her husband died. She said she painted the house inside and out, and was looking for something else to keep her busy.
“I think the Pals program is such a wonderful thing,” she said. “If anyone else would volunteer, they’d find it very fulfilling.”
Rey said the program has about seven mentors and is always looking for more. Ideally, each form a bond with their pal, giving the child “another person modeling behavior.”
Children are referred to the program from various sources, mostly school referrals, and most are typically children “who don’t necessarily need therapy, they just need more support,” Rey said.
In addition to the half-hour weekly with the child, mentors spend a weekly hour with Rey, which is a support session for the mentors. Rey said it gives her the opportunity to share information and training skills, plus allows them to “process” what happened during the week.
The mentor is a friend and confidant to the child, someone who is always happy to see them and is able to retain those confidences shared during the half hour, Rey said.
“It’s been really touching to me how much the mentors have embraced that,” Rey said. “The bond seems to happen pretty quickly.”
For more information on the program, call Rey at 374-5243, ext. 26.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.