by Deb Seminary
Growing up just outside of Detroit, Michigan, North Dakota’s First Lady Betsy Dalrymple learned early in life how to make a difference in her community. “My father was a lawyer and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. She did volunteer work and really encouraged me,” she said. “When I started getting involved, I had some friends whose parents were equally interested in having them do things in the community. I have always enjoyed volunteering.”
Betsy recalls one her first volunteer efforts – helping out at her family’s church. “Our church had a day care for individuals with special needs and my friends and I would assist there,” she said. “When we got older and could drive, we would go into inner-city Detroit in the summer and tutor in the elementary schools. When I went to college I majored in developmental psychology with a teaching degree. I don’t know if that started because of my early exposure, but it may have been a factor.”
Betsy and her husband, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrmple, have known each other practically their whole lives. “We have a picture of each other when he was around seven and I was about five,” she said. “His family and my family vacationed at the same place. So, we knew each other, though not well. The spring of my senior year we started looking at each other with a little more interest. We started dating that summer and dated all through college.”
The couple was able to see a lot of each other, since Jack went to Yale and Betsy went to Briarcliff College outside of New York City. “Our families were good friends, so when Jack and I started dating our parents decided they wouldn’t talk about it,” said Betsy. “They kind of put their friendship off to see if ours’ flourished. They were obviously thrilled when we decided to get married and they had even more of a connection with each other.”
That decision caused the FIrst Lady to have a lot of changes in her life over a short period of time. The couple married right after she graduated from college and then she made the move to North Dakota, since Jack was already running his family’s farm outside of Casselton. “I had always visited Jack in the summer and fall,” she said. “The first night we were up here there was a blizzard, so that was a little adjustment. The people of Casselton were really friendly and just opened their arms to me. I think it also helped I started substitute teaching right away that winter. When there were some openings in Fargo the next fall, I was asked to teach part-time and it evolved into full-time.”
Betsy taught for several years before becoming a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s four daughters. However, that did not keep her from staying busy outside of the home. “I started volunteering in the Casselton School,” she said. “I was also on the Casselton School Board for nine years.”
In 1984 Jack was encouraged to run for a District 22 House Seat. He won and served his first term in the North Dakota Legislature in 1985. “He served eight terms and each time we moved the girls out (to Bismarck) for four months,” said the First Lady. “We rented different houses around town and the school district was very good about trying to let us go back to the same schools so the girls could be with their friends. The girls say they are really glad we did that. It was a growing experience for them, attending a bigger city school. It was a little out of their comfort zone, but they all did great.”
When Jack became Lieutenant Governor, Betsy continued to find ways to volunteer. Last November, when it was apparent Jack would become governor, she felt, as First Lady, she needed to find more of a focus for her volunteer efforts. “My passions are early childhood educations and volunteerism,” she said. “I figured I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, so I looked for programs already going in North Dakota that I could promote. That’s when ‘Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library’ and ‘Gearing Up for Kindergarten’ came to my attention.”
‘Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library’ program plays an important role in getting young children excited about reading,” said Betsy. “It was started by Dolly Parton in her home county in Tennessee. Her Dollywood Foundation funded the program that sent age-appropriate books to every child in the county, from birth to age five, once a month for a cost of only $25 per child per year. It was so successful it expanded throughout Tennessee as communities adopted and funded the program. The books come addressed to the child, so what child is not going to read that book and look forward to next month when the next book is coming?”
“The best part is, the Dollywood Foundation does all of the mailing and has a team of experts that chooses the books,” she continued. “In Bismarck, the Missouri Slope Area United Way is offering ‘Imagination Library,’ but they have limited funds, so they can’t offer it to as many children as they would like. In Cass County, Cass-Clay United Way is actually looking for children to enroll in the program because they are so well-funded.”
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Libary is also currently offered in Dunseith, Flasher, Fort Totten, Theodore Jamerson School at United Tribes Technical College, Williston and Wilton.
The First Lady has been making presentations around the state promoting ‘Imagination Library.’ She hopes the increased awareness will encourage communities to participate in the program and several communities have already begun the process of incorporating Imagination Library into their area, including Ellendale, Grand Forks, Napoleon and Wishek.
One of the other programs Betsy supports and promotes is ‘Gearing Up for Kindergarten,’ which was started by the NDSU Extension Service. The organization developed, implemented and tested the program, and then went to the legislature for funding. “I looked at some of the legislation during the last session and ‘Gearing Up for Kindergarten’ fit me to a ‘T,’” she said. “It makes sure kids are ready for kindergarten. The parents and child go in together and work with the kindergarten teacher. It helps the children get comfortable and builds relationships even before they actually start kindergarten.”
The First Lady also focuses on volunteerism specifically, teenage volunteerism. “We have researched what kind of teenage volunteer opportunities there are in the schools around the state and there are three terrific programs we found,” she said. “My untested theory is if you can get a teenager to start volunteering and they see their personal growth in giving back to their community, they will do it as an adult. I think they will continue to do it the rest of their life, especially when they realize how good it makes them feel.”
In Fargo the public school system offers a class called ‘Service Learning’ in which area youth can get credit for volunteering in the community. At Dickinson Trinity, the school has a program called ‘Treasure and Talents’ where the teacher assigns students to agencies or organizations that need volunteer help. The students then write reports and make presentations to the class about their experiences.
The final program Betsy is most excited about takes place at Red River High School in Grand Forks. Students can begin the ROPES Program in ninth grade by signing up to document their volunteer hours. At graduation, depending on the number of volunteer hours each individual has served, the students get to wear a certain color rope. A white rope signifies 100 volunteer hours, a black rope signifies 200 hours, and a red rope signifies 300 volunteer hours. Students with at least 400 volunteer hours wear a rope combining all three of the school’s colors.
“It is so helpful when schools promote volunteerism,” she said. “When they say, ‘you can do something good for your community, and get credit for it,’ what a great idea!”
The First Lady has also been spending time reading in the state’s elementary schools. “What is really fun now is I am back in the schools again,” she said. “I really enjoy talking to educators from across the state and learning about their individual schools.”
Betsy is enjoying her role as the First Lady of North Dakota and being able to support many important programs across the state. “To a great extent, I can set my own schedule and find the time to promote some of these opportunities,” she said. “It is also a great opportunity to learn about our state.”
Volunteering is a way of life for the First Lady and she still makes time to volunteer when her schedule allows . “I went out with the Salvation Army during the flooding here in Bismarck,” she explained. “I would call and ask if they needed help and just show up. I wouldn’t tell them who I was, that wasn’t why I was there. Sometimes while we were out, someone would say something to me and the other people in the Salvation Army truck would say, ‘who are you’?”
That recent experience gave Betsy a whole new appreciation for the Salvation Army as well. “Jack and I went out with the Salvation Army this summer,” she said. “The volunteer output in Minot has been unbelievable and the really remarkable thing, with all of this flooding, is the resiliency of North Dakotans. It is so inspiring.”
The First Lady also spent a day volunteering in Minot with Lieutenant Governor Drew Wrigley and staff from the Office of the First Lady, the ND Department of Commerce and All Hands volunteers removing debris from a flooded home.
“Volunteering makes me feel good. It’s not so much about yourself, it’s about other people,” says Betsy, summing up her thoughts on a lifetime of volunteering. “That is a really nice feeling for people to have, that you can help someone else. It has always given me a lot of satisfaction. It is just who I am.”
For More Information: Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library was started in 1995 by Dolly Parton for the children of Sevier County in her home state of Tennessee and has spread throughout the country. The program inspires a love of reading and guarantees all children, regardless of income, will have quality books in the home. The Dollywood Foundation partners with communities willing to bring this gift to the children of their area. Once children register with the program, they receive a free, age appropriate book each month from birth until the age of 5. The community partners fund the cost of the books, postage and mailing, which is only $25 a year. For more information, visit http://governor.nd.gov/first-lady/imagination-library.
Gearing Up for Kindergarten is a new school readiness and parent education curriculum designed to facilitate successful school experiences for young children and parent knowledge and involvement. It is a collaborative school readiness and parent education program, developed and tested by North Dakota State University and the NDSU Extension Service. The program focuses on engaging families with a child entering kindergarten in the next 1-2 years. This curriculum teaches sound principles and practical approaches for parents and other adults to assist children entering kindergarten to reach their full potential..For more information, please contact Judith Konerza at 701.787.4216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.