[Courtesy photo]

Kathy Cooney has friends of all ages — since she started volunteering with Grand Area Mentoring eight years ago.

“Since 2007, I have had this really great community of friends, big and little, young and old,” Cooney said.

When she’s substitute teaching in Grand County’s public schools, she’s known as “Mrs. Cooney.” To her young mentees, however, she’s simply “Kathy.” Currently, Conney mentors a fifth-grader, a sixth-grader and a high school student.

Each week, the bubbly 56-year-old spends an hour one-on-one with each child, doing what friends do — playing four-square and other games, baking cookies, taking walks, or going out to lunch, for example.

She and her husband Chuck Schildt owned an art gallery for 12 years. Currently, Cooney runs a wholesale art business that allows her some flexibility in her schedule, she said. She began volunteering in the schools when her son was 5.

“While volunteering in the school I saw kids who couldn’t read,” Cooney said.

After reading “The 90% reading Goal” — a book that explains how to increase reading proficiency for third-graders — helping kids learn to read became Cooney’s mission, she said. In 1995, Cooney became a Vista volunteer at the senior center, where she created a program linking retired seniors with kids who needed some individual attention in developing reading skills.

Grand Area Mentoring founder and program director Dan McNeil and mentor coordinator Megan McGee noticed Cooney’s work and approached her about being a mentor. Grand Area Mentoring matches screened adults with elementary to high school students who could benefit from having an additional adult friend in their lives. Teachers typically refer kids to the program.

“Kathy is an ideal mentor,” McNeil said. “She’s very reliable and goes the extra mile.”

Grand Area Mentoring serves 50 to 60 kids at any given time. There are always a dozen kids on the waiting list for a mentor, McNeil said. Last year, the nonprofit matched 80 kids to mentors.

Spending the time volunteering, Cooney said, makes her feel “richer, with more time and energy” overall.

Some of that drive to volunteer has rubbed off on Cooney’s son Charlie, who’s 24, and used to volunteer his time reading to residents at the old Allen Memorial Hospital’s Extended Care unit.

“He continues to volunteer locally whenever he comes back to town from California,” Cooney said.

Cooney said she wants people to know how easy it is to get involved in the community.

“There are so many opportunities and so many ways to have fun and be of help, and spread some laughs along the way,” she said.

This Week: Kathy Cooney