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'This is something I can give': Retired teacher volunteers 8 hours a day at BMS

Mike Bjerk, a longtime volunteer at Bemidji Middle School who was awarded Lay Educator of the Year in August, plays "Qwirkle" with students on Friday. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—Mike Bjerk, a longtime volunteer at Bemidji Middle School, helped a handful of students in Ross Randall's sixth-grade class with a vocabulary lesson Friday.

The word was "foreboding"—a feeling or implication that something bad is about to happen.

"Kind of like when I watch the Vikings," Bjerk told the students with a chuckle. "I have a real foreboding that they're going to lose."

Bjerk has volunteered for eight hours per day at the middle school for years, and is effectively a full-time employee in the school's "Alpha Pod." The Bemidji Education Association awarded him the Lay Educator of the Year award this past August, and Randall said Bjerk is good at connecting with students.

"He's so good at knowing how literature connects to the kid's life, and he can tell a story for anything" Randall said, adding that Bjerk and his full complement of fishing stories are particularly good at connecting to "rough and tumble" boys who might generally prefer a four-wheeler over a book. "He can talk sports and he can talk Edgar Allen Poe...He's really good at relating to kids, and they just want to come in, usually to read to him or to read with him."

On Friday, Bjerk was talking "Letters from Rifka," a children's historical novel that follows a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia to the United States and Ellis Island. He read two chapters of the book as Randall's sixth graders sat nearby or curled up into beanbag "nests" as they followed along in their own copies of the book.

"I still love the kids," Bjerk said. "I just enjoy the job."

Bjerk is a retired language arts teacher who spent the bulk of his 35-year career teaching middle and high school in East Grand Forks. Health concerns prompted him to retire a little earlier than he wanted to, he said, in 2004.

He nonetheless volunteered at the Grand Forks YMCA and read to people at a retirement home there before moving to the Bemidji area in 2012.

Bjerk started volunteering at the middle school after he saw an ad for a "foster grandparent" program through Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota, he recalled.

"After I got here, I found myself working with really good people," Bjerk said of the middle school staff. "These people are superb teachers, so it's really a pleasure to work with them."

Bjerk also helps coach the Lumberjack seventh-grade basketball team. He played the sport in high school and coached it during his East Grand Forks days, too.

Bjerk is a 1971 graduate of BSU and has two sons and a few grandchildren who live in the area. He fondly recalled spending summers at a cabin on Lake Beltrami, and said he wanted to be a teacher since he was in fourth grade.

Bjerk said he was drawn to teaching by and volunteering by his Christian faith and President John F. Kennedy's iconic inaugural address, when the then-incoming president implored Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country."

"This is my contribution," Bjerk said. "This is something I can give."

He also corrected the idea that he's purely a volunteer—Bjerk gets a $2.65 hourly stipend from Lutheran Social Services for his work at the middle school.

"I don't work for absolutely free," he said with another chuckle. "It pays for ice fishing trips."

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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