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‘Experiences I never dreamed possible’

Nemitz retiring as Foster Grandparent director

When Jeanine Nemitz, of Fort Dodge, was a child one of her chores was to clean the church her family attended.

“I was trained as a volunteer from a very early age,” said Nemitz, a 1974 Fort Dodge Senior High graduate. “My family went to a small church (Assumption Parish in Coalville) and we would all take turns cleaning the church. That was my first exposure to how volunteers can make a difference. The little kids dusted the pews and as you grew older your jobs got bigger.”

That volunteer spirit followed Nemitz into adulthood.

As she grew older, she spent time volunteering in schools and eventually coordinated religious education programs at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Fort Dodge.

In 1999, she became a staff member for the Foster Grandparent program. Nemitz became director of the program in 2010.

She always saw the value in the program, which places people age 55 and older in schools and day care centers to serve as helpers.

“I had two boys of my own, so I knew what the grandparents could do,” Nemitz said. “This was a special opportunity to work with these men and women that all they really wanted was to see that spark in a little kid’s eye. It’s easy to get hooked.”

Through the years, Nemitz witnessed countless moments where grandparents made an impact on the lives of children.

About eight years ago, Nemitz visited the elementary school in Dayton to observe a grandma.

“There was one particular student who was almost afraid that she (grandma) was in trouble,” Nemitz recalled.

Nemitz said the student asked her what she was doing.

“I said these are questions I am asking grandma,” Nemitz said.

The student then said that when he does a good job on a paper, he gets a smiley face sticker.

The grandma asked him what he gets if he earns five stickers.

The student said he got to pick a reward.

“The reward he picked was he wanted to have lunch with grandma,” Nemitz said. “I said, ‘Would you like to draw a smiley on grandma’s paper?’ And he did. He said, ‘Maybe you can have lunch with her, too.'”

One particular day of the year Nemitz enjoyed was called Day Out of Dodge. Day Out of Dodge was one day at the end of the school year where the grandparents and children would go on a trip.

One year, a group went to the Kaleidoscope Factory in Pocahontas and ate at Pizza Ranch afterwards.

“Leonard Olson taught them how to make their own kaleidoscopes,” Nemitz said. “It turned out the grandparents had always wanted to go there.”

Olson died in 2019.

Nemitz said oftentimes it was the simple moments that created the best memories.

“I think in the past year we have appreciated a simpler life because of how COVID has made us live,” Nemitz said. “But some of those simple pleasures like going to the Kaleidoscope Factory in Pocahontas and eating at the Pizza Ranch. It’s those kinds of opportunities to be able to share with people. That opportunity to work on the sidelines in the background to make something happen for somebody else. Yes, it was my job, but the reward was the difference it made for people.”

Lois Harvey is just one example of a grandparent who made a lasting impression on the students she spent time with.

Harvey visited a third grade classroom at St. Edmond Catholic School.

“She would play checkers and she would never let a kid win,” Nemitz said. “If they beat her, they beat her fair and square. They really wanted to beat Grandma Lois before they got out of third grade.”

Harvey would also help students with their work — but only if they had a quarter to give her.

“She would get asked for help and she would say, ‘I’ll help you, but only for a quarter,'” Nemitz said. “And when students would offer one, she’d tell them to keep it.”

Harvey passed away in 2017.

“On the edge of her casket were quarters all lined up that kids and former students had left for her,” Nemitz said. “That’s somebody who made an impression on kids long after they were in third grade.”

Harvey worked as a Foster Grandparent for about 18 years.

Nemitz said her role with Foster Grandparents took her places she never thought she’d go.

“I’ve had experiences that I never would have dreamed possible,” she said. “I served on the national board. I never would have dreamed I’d be sitting in congressional offices (in Washington, D.C.) telling them about volunteers in Iowa.”

Nemitz said she always left schools and day care centers feeling good about the program.

“Every single time I would walk out and think this is why I do what I do,” Nemitz said. “It’s these little kids that fight for their chance to work individually with their grandparents. It’s hearing a little kid say that grandma doesn’t give report cards so I’m not afraid to make a mistake with her. That true wonder that comes from a little kid with having a relationship with someone that doesn’t have to be in school. They (grandparents) are there because they want the kids to succeed.”

Nemitz is retiring from her role as director today. Tina Patterson has been named as her replacement.

In her retirement, Nemitz still plans to do some work with the National Association of Foster Grandparent Program Directors. She will be setting up monthly curriculum for new directors as they are hired.

A drive-thru farewell is planned for Nemitz today at Citizens Central for the grandparents to say goodbye. The farewell is planned from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

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