A multitude of benefits
Foster Grandparents are good for the children and the ‘grandparents’
When people hear the word retiree, they probably don’t imagine someone who spends 15 hours a week in the schools helping children learn.
But for 28 people in Webster County, volunteering as a Foster Grandparent is a labor of love.
Foster Grandparents has been a federal program since 1965, and has been a part of Fort Dodge for the past 45 years, according to Jeanine Nemitz, the Fort Dodge Foster Grandparents progam director.
“Our grant is through the federal government,” Nemitz said. “We’re part of the Senior Corps, which is a like like AmeriCorps, but this is for people 55 and older.”
Foster Grandparents had funding available for 31 foster grandparents, and the program currently has 28.
Nemitz said at this time all the grandparents are women, but men who are 55 and older can participate as well.
The program operates during the academic year, fall through the spring. Foster Grandparents are trained in the summer and are placed in the fall.
Nemitz said there’s a difference between being a foster parent and a foster grandparent.
“They don’t take kids into their homes,” she said. “We like to say they take kids into their hearts.”
Foster Grandparents are placed in all the Fort Dodge public schools and St. Edmond Catholic School. Nemitz said there are also Foster Grandparents in Dayton, Farnhamville and Barnum.
“What they do is they always work in a supervised location to tutor and mentor children,” Nemitz said. “We focus on third grade and under in our program.”
While the grandparents can be in older classrooms, Nemitz said from talking to the schools, preschool through third grade students are those who get the most benefit from working one-on-one with a Foster Grandparent, “where our emerging readers are.”
The Foster Grandparents work with the same teacher throughout the entire year.
“The teacher designates what they do in terms of the curriculum,” she said. “They use their lesson plans.”
A Foster Grandparent must spend at least 15 hours a week in the classroom.
But it’s not just academic work the grandparents aid.
“Because so many of them are in kindergarten classrooms, they’re serving social and emotional support for those kids as well,” Nemitz said. “They can just be that extra set of eyes and ears for a teacher.”
Oftentimes, she said the children will feel more comfortable with a Foster Grandparent than a teacher, or sometimes a Foster Grandparent will notice something about a child before a teacher does.
Nemitz said she helps place the grandparent with the teacher, and a lot goes into determining which classroom is most appropriate for each grandparent.
“Let’s say we have a grandparent that really needs to know what’s going to happen every day, has a schedule and all those types of things,” Nemitz said. “We’re not going to put that grandparent with a teacher who comes in every day with a complete change of lesson plans.”
Mary Solverson, volunteer services coordinator with Foster Grandparents, agreed.
“We’re pretty good at matching those up too,” she said. “The teachers and the grandparents.”
All the training is handled by the program, and Nemitz said a Foster Grandparent does not have to be a former teacher in order to participate.
Training includes a session on how schools have changed since the grandparent was in school.
“The classrooms operate much differently now than what our grandparents certainly were used to,” she said. “Kids are working on multiple things in a classroom. Very rarely are there rows of desks facing the front with their feet on the floor. The teachers no longer teach with their backs to the classroom, and they use computers for reading.”
Training also includes going over the code of conduct and a background check, as well as some basic learning disability training.
Through its federal funding, Foster Grandparents provides a tax-free stipend as well as transportation reimbursement. There is also transportation provided by Dodger Area Rapid Transit for those grandparents who don’t have their own vehicles.
But the grandparents don’t do it for the money.
“Our grandparents will tell you that, while they may have come to it for the opportunity to make a little extra money, they stick with it because of the hugs and intangibles they get from the kids and from the friendships that they make with fellow grandparents,” Nemitz said.
Foster Grandparents impact about 1,000 students a year.
“That’s pretty exciting when you think about just the role models for 1,000 children,” she said. “And all the kids who have moved through over the years.”
She and Solverson love participating in Foster Grandparents because they see first-hand the positive impacts it has on both the grandparents and children.
Studies have been done that show the grandparents who participate in both Foster Grandparents and other Senior Corps programs report an increase in both their physical and mental health.
According to data provided by Nemitz, 84 percent of those surveyed reported improved or stable physical health after two years in Senior Corps, while 78 percent said they felt less depressed after participating in programs.
Children have said that their favorite part of the school year is working with their Foster Grandparent, and Nemitz said students who see the grandparents in public will call out “Grandma! Grandma!” which often confuses their parents.
“They all go by grandma at school,” Nemitz said. “It isn’t like Mrs. Marvel or whatever. It’s Grandma Pam or whatever.”
She recalled one story about a little boy who found out his Foster Grandmother was a widow, and asked if she wanted him to introduce her to his grandfather, who was a widower.
And the children never forget their grandparents. Nemitz said there was one Foster Grandmother who would jokingly tell her students that she would help them for a quarter.
When that grandmother was invited to a high school graduation party for one of her former students, that student gave her a card with a quarter, saying that they still owed her the money.
And when that same grandmother passed away, Solverson said not only did current and former foster grandchildren attend the funeral, but they also made a tribute to her.
“There were quarters on her casket,” she said.
“She was very loved,” Nemitz added.
Over the past few years, Nemitz said there have been attempts to cut funding to the Foster Grandparents program. But, locally, Nemitz said federal representatives are very supportive of the program.
“We’ve worked very hard to have friends in Congress that know what we do here at home,” she said. “I currently serve as the president of the National Association of Foster Grandparent Program Directors, and so when I go to D.C. twice a year, I’m able to share those things with congressional offices.”
“We’ve survived those attempts to close us.”