New to town, she reached out and volunteered

• Retired teacher found her niche at Handke Center, other volunteer assignments


(Editor’s note: May is Older Americans Month. Judy Free is one of the many active senior volunteers in the Elk River area.)

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

When Judy Free moved from New Jersey to Elk River in 2005, she didn’t know anyone here.

Free and her dad had moved to Minnesota to be closer to family in Princeton, but new connections needed to be made in Elk River.

So she searched on the Internet, found out about the local Retired and Senior Volunteer Program and met Charlotte Strei, who coordinates it.

“If you’re bored, Charlotte is the one to go to,” Free said.

A retired math and computer science teacher, Free had taught school for 37 years at Cherry Hill High School West in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Volunteering in an education-related field was a natural fit, and Free found her niche at the Handke Center. Since moving to Elk River, Free has volunteered more than 2,000 hours there with programs like English as a Second Language and Adult Basic Education.

“It’s a really good place,” Free said. “I’ve met so many people from so many different countries.”

Free doesn’t limit her volunteering to the Handke Center, though.

She also volunteers at the Elk River Library, where she works as a “book picker.” When someone requests a book, Free’s job is to find that book in the library and set it aside for the patron.

She has ushered at plays, judged an elementary school science contest, worked with Meadowvale Elementary students on a special math project and made new clothes for dolls social workers use when interviewing child victims.

Free is involved at the Elk River Activity Center as well. She teaches a card-making class there twice a month, takes yoga classes and is part of a group called “Those Women.” They go to different places, see movies and go out to lunch.

Free said she’s grateful that Elk River sponsors the Activity Center.

“It is a very warm and welcoming place that sponsors many activities,” she said.

Free said she would encourage all seniors to explore the many programs offered at the Activity Center.

Annette Bonin, Elk River senior citizen coordinator, said Free has volunteered at the Activity Center since it opened in 2007, including more than 360 volunteer hours there last year alone.

“She is creative, organized and dependable,” Bonin said.

Free’s card-making classes continue to attract new participants. Her dedication has enriched the lives of many Activity Center participants, Bonin said.

Free said there are opportunities out there for people who want to be involved.

“You can’t sit home. You’ve got to reach out,” she said.