by Britt Aamodt
Lena Torgerson was the second to youngest child in a family of two girls and four boys. She grew up near St. Francis, among the trees and acres watered by the Rum River. She was eager to learn, but the kids at school taunted her. She didn’t fit in, and they let her know it.
In this day and age, her classmates’ behavior would’ve been termed bullying. Counselors would’ve been called in. But back then, Torgerson just took it.
“Dad told me I was old enough to quit school. So I quit school because I didn’t have much friends,” she said. “Since I dropped out, I think I learned more.”
What she didn’t learn, and wasn’t keen on telling anyone, was that she had never learned how to read and write.
That would all change when she met Esther Larom.
Larom spent her formative years near Chicago. She and her husband moved to Minnesota years ago for work. She earned a master’s in speech and language therapy at St. Thomas University in St. Paul and then spent several years working in public schools.
Now retired, she lives in downtown Elk River and was searching for something new, a new challenge, when she walked into Charlotte Strei’s office in the Government Center late last winter.
“It started with Esther coming in and saying, ‘What can I do?’” said Strei, project coordinator for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program out of Sherburne County. “I decided my best option was to call Rosie at Guardian Angels and say, hey, I have this person with this set of skills. Can you use her?”
Rosie Becker, director of Guardian Angels Adult Day Services, said she had to let that offer “rumble around” in her head for a while.
Then she thought of Torgerson, who’d been coming to Adult Day Services two times a week since 2011.
In March 2012, Torgerson met Larom for the first time. Her goal was to learn how to write her name.
“It didn’t long at all,” said Larom, who told Becker and Strei that her new student was the most eager she’d ever met.
Within weeks Torgerson was puzzling out the mysterious symbols that together spelled her name. Larom asked her if she wanted to keep on going.
“I told her I’m not a quitter,” said Torgerson.
Every Tuesday and Friday, the two met in a room off the main meeting area. They started out the way many first-time readers start, figuring out letters and sounding out words.
“Lena didn’t share what she was doing at first. But she has a lot friends here and one day she came out and announced she was learning to read,” Becker said.
The road was an uphill one. Torgerson had spent decades looking at pages in books and seeing only confusion. Decades. But now, she sits at her table with Larom beside her and sounds out “The Foot Book” by Dr. Seuss.
And it’s not just a new skill she’s learned.
“My sister said that since I started coming here she saw a change in me. I’ve been more open and I don’t let stuff bother me,” she said.
She’s also found a friend in her teacher.
“I didn’t know nothing till I met my baby,” she said, giving Larom a one-armed hug. “I hug her and tell her I love her.”
Becker couldn’t be more tickled. It used to be that when a card was passed around for a Guardian Angels friend, the staff would sign Torgerson’s name.
“Now she signs the card herself,” said Becker, who marvels at Torgerson’s progress. “Once you open words, then you open books.”
What next? Harder words, longer books and practice, practice, practice.
Guardian Angels “is my second home and my second family,” said Torgerson, and her work with Larom has no end in sight. “I want to keep going. I’m happy. I just feel relaxed in myself.”