By Barbara Pierce
“I really appreciate whoever’s in charge of this program” is how Gwen Stewart sums up her experience as a foster grandparent at The Neighborhood Center in Utica. “It’s a great program. I’m so glad to be here”
“I love it! I love being around the children,” agrees Cora Cerocco, another foster grandparent at The Neighborhood Center. “I love helping the children, and seeing their smiles.”
“I like new experiences; I’d be bored at home” added Stewart “I like learning to know each kid each new year. Each one has a different personality. I get to know all of them.”
“They tell us personal stuff; they know they can trust me,” said Cerocco. “And they love hugs. One little girl was crying. I just held her and she calmed right down and stopped crying.”
“They’re both amazing” said Karen Kohl, child care supervisor of Stewart and Cerocco. “They come every day. That extra pair of hands assisting the teachers with the kids is so helpful.”
For five years, Cerocco has been a foster grandparent for infants and toddlers at The Neighborhood Center; Stewart for three years, working with preschool children who are transitioning into kindergarten.
They’re in the foster grandparent program of Oneida, Herkimer, and Madison counties. Sponsored by Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency, it’s part of AmeriCorps, a network of national service programs that provide older Americans the opportunity to put their life experiences to work for local communities. Foster grandparents serve as mentors, tutors and caregivers for at-risk children and youth with special needs through a variety of community organizations, including local elementary schools, Head Start and day-care centers.
The program gives people older than 55 to opportunity to share of themselves and their caring with special needs kids who face physical, mental social or emotional obstacles to learning. By giving the children one-to-one attention, they help the child overcome those obstacles.
“The foster grandparent program partners with schools, day care centers, and Head Start,” said program director Patti Demma, Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency. “We look for volunteers, 55 and over, who meet eligibility requirements. Once they’re in our program, they start getting benefits, and are assigned to a classroom near their home.”
Benefits include a stipend of $3.15 per hour, paid leave of 78 hours every six months, travel reimbursement and supplemental insurance. If they don’t have transportation to get to their classroom, we’ll help them get there, she added.
The foster grandparent program is open to people age 55 and older with limited incomes. All applicants undergo a background check and a telephone interview, as well as training and ongoing in-service training. Foster grandparents serve 15 to 40 hours a week.
“Each foster grandparent is assigned to a classroom,” explained Demma. “In their classroom, there will be two students they’ve been specifically assigned to, to do certain activities with that child. Each grandparent has two kids, though no one knows this but the teacher and the grandparent. For example, the assignment may to read a book with that child twice a week. As they read, other kids will gather around. And that’s a good thing, so the target child will learn to socialize with others.”
“We have 33 foster grandparents in the Mohawk Valley,” said Demma. “We’re always looking for more. We’ll train you.”
“I’ve been a foster grandparent for seven years and look forward to continuing year after year,” said Pat Vandeusen, who works in an elementary school near her home in Nampa, Idaho. She’s well known in her community as an enthusiastic spokesperson for the program in her area, also under AmeriCorps.
“Being a foster grandparent is helping kids learn in school,” she added. “Often, they come from homes where the parents aren’t able to help their children with what they’re learning. Or the kids may have a learning disability.”
“As foster grandparents, we go into the classrooms, give individual encouragement, and help children develop the skills needed to learn. We’re the ones who cheer them on!” she said.
Benefits of being a foster grandparent for her include the challenge of learning new skills, like new math, always helpful to an aging brain and making “precious friends” with other Foster Grandparents.
“We’re always looking for more foster grandparents,” said Kohl. “We value them so much.”
The foster grandparent program joins together two generations, older folks and kids. The program improves the quality of life for seniors, gives them a purpose and the opportunities to make friends. The presence of the foster grandparents gives parents and children an extra sense of security. The kids have a stable grandparent figure who mentors and encourages them in both socialization experiences and classroom activities. What a win-win situation for both the kids and their foster grandparents.
For more information on the foster grandparent program in the Mohawk Valley or to apply, call 315-624-9930.
Featured Image: Gwen Stewart and Cora Cerocco are foster grandparents at The Neighborhood Center in Utica. They serve as mentors, tutors and caregivers for at-risk children and youth with special needs through a variety of community organizations, including local elementary schools, Head Start and day-care centers