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Foster Grandparents make a difference

Volunteers impact young children’s lives

Many people look forward to retirement and the chance to do everything that they didn’t have time for while working full time. Once those projects are finished, the days get a little longer and the need for a new purpose sets in. The isolation of a winter like we just survived can also bring about depression and loss of a healthy lifestyle. For the people who serve with the Foster Grandparent Program, the loneliness experienced by others age 55 and older is less evident; and in fact, service through the program is proven to help people live longer and avoid feelings of depression. In studies from the Corporation for National and Community Service released in February, 84% of our volunteers reported much higher self-related health scores than their peers who do not volunteer. After two years, 78% of volunteers with our programs reported less feelings of depression than they had experienced at the time of their enrollment.

The Foster Grandparent Program has been in the Fort Dodge area since 1973 when then-Mayor Albert Habhab accepted a grant to open a program targeting people age 60 and older to serve as tutors and helpers with children in schools and day care centers. This year we are completing 45 years of serving the children — and even grandchildren — of those original students. In those early years Foster Grandparents were an extra set of hands, a welcoming lap to sit upon, and a friendly helper who zipped coats and tied shoes. While Foster Grandparents still do those things, today they can also be found assisting with computers during reading time, working on math problems, checking work progress, and building Lego skyscrapers in library maker spaces.

Nancy Beck works with kindergarten students and can be found sounding out words and letters. She is persistent with those who struggle, and one of her students became frustrated after several days of going over the same list of words. Grandma Nancy laughed when the student finally stated that she was surprised that “Grandma” hadn’t figured these words out, after all they have been working on them all week!

Kathleen Foresi also works with kindergarteners. One of her students watched one day as Grandma waited for her ride at the end of her shift. She asked the boy if he would give her a ride one day when he was old enough to get a car. His response was to tell her that by the time he gets a car she’ll be in a nursing home!

Mary Casey shares that she believes she makes the most difference for children who struggle with their situation at home. She notes that just being able to make them smile is a reward in itself. She hears many stories of tough family situations, but doesn’t judge and lets the students know that with her they are safe.

Bonnie Russell has been with the program for over 10 years. She loves when her students draw pictures for her to hang on her fridge at home; and the joy in their eyes when they finally master a math problem. These Grandparents and 27 others are on track to serve over 30,000 hours this school year.

Foster Grandparents work under the supervision of a teacher who designs the activities for them to complete with the children. No prior experience in teaching is required; however, a love for children and a commitment to a regular schedule each week are necessary. Training and placement to become a Foster Grandparent includes instructions from program staff, job shadowing with current Grandparents, and background checks. On-going training is provided, as are summer enrichment activities to stay involved and active. The schools pay nothing to have Foster Grandparents assigned to their classrooms, but they do provide a lunch each day when Grandparents are serving.

The program was originally designed for lower income men and women age 60 and over who were willing to serve a twenty hour per week schedule. Today’s Grandparents may enroll at age 55, and may serve a more limited schedule depending upon requests from the schools. Those who meet income limits are paid an hourly stipend which is non-taxable and does not count against other benefits. Those who do not meet income limits may also serve, but terms and schedules are slightly different for them. Program guidelines also call for a health screening to ensure that volunteers are well enough to serve the regular assigned schedule. For those who do not drive and live within the DART service area, a route bus is available for transportation to and from school.

As we wrap up this 45th year of serving the community, we welcome men and women who are interesting in sharing their experience with children to contact our office for an application. There are so many children who will welcome the opportunity to warm your heart.

Jeanine Nemitz is the director of the Foster Grandparents program in Fort Dodge. She is also serving a two-year term as president of the National Association of Foster Grandparent Program Directors.