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‘A light in a dark year’

East Grand Rapids — Third-graders Bodhi Valentine and Reagan Aylsworth waited in the main office recently for the arrival of Grandma Carol. They had never met her, but since school began this year they have been working their way through art and goodie baskets she drops off a couple times a month.

Carol Wilburn, known for years as “Grandma Carol” to third-graders at Wealthy School, has been visiting Andrea Eggert’s third-grade classroom for several years to lead art lessons with her students. 

Bodhi Valentine holds the latest basket, which just happens to be Valentine-themed

Two of Wilburn’s granddaughters were students of Eggert’s, “but once they both were past third grade she decided to continue to donate her time and come teach art, even though I didn’t have her grandkids anymore,” Eggert said.  

With visitors restricted this year because of the pandemic, Wilburn puts together an art lesson at home — organizing supplies, cutting paper to the right size, writing simple-to-follow steps and including a treat that fits the project’s theme — arranges it in a shopping basket and drives from her Wyoming home to drop it off at the school. 

She often includes books that support each basket’s theme: apple varieties for the first project, or winter holidays for a culturally diverse look at how other countries celebrate.  

“One week I brought the kids to the library window so we could wave to her and talk to her over the phone,” Eggert said. “The kids ask me every Tuesday, ‘Did Grandma Carol bring a new basket?’

“She has been a light in a dark year, a selfless volunteer who has found a way to continue to give in these most difficult and restrictive of times.”

There she is! ‘Grandma’ Carol Wilburn arrives with a new activity basket

Bittersweet, but Still Sweet

Wilburn is a retired Kentwood Public Schools elementary teacher, “and I’ve always loved art,” she said. “I did a lot of it in my own classroom. It’s something children can really feel success with. If they do something they think is wrong I help them make something out of it so they can feel successful. And when they hang it up, it looks gorgeous.”

Though Wilburn spent the bulk of her 40-year teaching career at Kentwood schools, she and Eggert have something else in common: they both taught briefly at Holy Name School in Wyoming.

Having first-hand experience with well-meaning volunteers who can sometimes inadvertently create more work for teachers, Wilburn said she is conscious of making her craft baskets all-inclusive so Eggert doesn’t have extra tasks. 

“When I taught, I never had a moment to myself,” Wilburn said, laughing.

Doing the craft baskets gives her an excuse to be around children. She admits this year has been bittersweet. 

“I really miss seeing the kids,” Wilburn said. “There are 16 children in (Eggert’s) room this year I don’t know. Mothers in the past have said to me, ‘She or he can’t wait for you to come.’ They get so excited. Another mother told me her little girl didn’t have grandparents who live nearby, so she called me her arts-and-crafts grandma. I thought, ‘Oh, that is so sweet to know.’”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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