The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 12, 2012

Former Mankato nurse, educator receives national award

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

— Sondra von Arb has been crossing some things off her bucket list. Three years ago the 73-year-old took up sky diving. She’s snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef. She wanted to scuba dive, but they wouldn’t let her because of a bum knee.

Now, the woman who spent her career in nursing and nursing education in Mankato can cross off a “to do” she didn’t even know was in her bucket.

Von Arb was chosen from 12,000 nominees across North America as the winner of the American Music Guild’s Educational Organization Award. She and her husband, Ron, attended the Oscars-like awards ceremony in South Carolina last month, where music stars and organizations were honored.

The 10 finalists in her category were narrowed to five and then von Arb was chosen as the winner.

The award honors a volunteer group von Arb founded in the Owatonna Schools, where she and Ron now live. The School Board asked the couple — avid volunteers —  if they could find a way to get more volunteers into the school.

She recruited some friends, did six months of research and formed Grandparents for Education.

Four years later, about 130 grandparent volunteers do whatever needs doing in grades K-12. In the past two months alone they’ve had 200 requests from teachers.

“We help with whatever teachers request. We just had a request to help four students with English language learning. We tutor. A group of kids wants to learn how to make candy, so we’re doing that after school,” von Arb said.

The group grabbed the attention of U.S. Rep. Tim Walz of Mankato, whose staff did some digging and couldn’t find another school volunteer group like it in the country.

“We need to get one going in Mankato,” von Arb said. 

She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing at Mankato State University and was a registered nurse in the obstetrics department at St. Joseph’s Hospital where she also served as practical nurse educator.

She was on the nursing faculty at MSU until being asked to start a nursing program at what was then Mankato Vocational School, now South Central College. She served as director of the nursing program until she retired in 1980. 

She’s authored and co-authored several nursing textbooks.

They moved to Owatonna in 2003.

When someone called in August saying they were from the Artists Music Guild and telling her she was a finalist for an award, von Arb hung up on them.

“I though it was a joke my son or brother was playing on me. They called me right back and said it’s not a joke.”

The music guild’s interest in education is tied to its mentoring program in music and a college it has in Virginia that allows needy students to attend for a fraction of the cost of other colleges.

Since winning her award, the Music Guild asked von Arb to be on their board.

von Arb still has no idea who nominated her.

von Arb said her and Ron’s volunteer efforts have derailed what they thought would be winters spent in Texas and lots of traveling.

“We’ve retired four times. We retire and get involved in something again.”

But, she insists, she’s going to stay at least semi-retired. “We’re going to Texas for a least a month each year. I have to go sky diving.”

As for other exotic adventures she’d like to undertake, she has several. But one has little interest.

“Going up in a hot air balloon — I can’t imagine that would be fun. You’d be going so slow.”