Foster grandparent program puts seasoned adults into Linn, Benton, Lincoln County classrooms

Several of the volunteers who work in the Foster Grandparent program gathered recently at the OCWCOG building in Albany, but volunteers are spread out among three counties, where they help children in their local schools to improve their educational skills.

By the time many adults reach the grandparent stage they often are retired and their nests are empty.

A program sponsored by the Oregon Cascade West Council of Governments gives some of those adults an important connection with children they may be missing.

The Foster Grandparents Program in Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties allows older adults into classrooms during school hours and for after-school programs.

The national program celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015, and it’s been an ongoing program in the Corvallis/Albany areas since the 1970s. It’s designed for folks age 55 and older who are income eligible.

This program asks volunteers to spend a minimum of 15 hours a week working on educational skills with up to five children. Some even work up to the 40-hour maximum time limit.

It’s an exciting and strongly worked out program with 31 memos of understanding with local schools, Head Start programs, and after-school programs and libraries in the three-county area. These include elementary, middle and College Hill High School in Corvallis, as well as programs such as Head Start and Boys and Girls Clubs.

In the younger grades and programs, volunteers typically work with ages 3 years to third grade student reading programs. While programs have been mostly centered in urban areas, it’s being pushed out into the more rural areas.

“Although we have 33 volunteers, more than we’ve had in the past, we’d like to have more,” says Alicia Lucke, program supervisor for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of the Oregon Cascade West Council of Governments.

The OCWCOG is a volunteer organization of 20 cities in Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties as well as the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Port of Newport. This group offers programs in public health and safety, emergency preparedness, senior and disability services, and economic and community development and more, Lucke says.

“We receive generous funding from the Early Learning Hub of Linn, Benton and Lincoln Counties as well as the United Way of Benton County,” she says. Much of the funding is used to train the volunteers, teach them educational and literacy skills, and train tutors about Spanish culture.

The main federal funding for the Foster Grandparent program comes from the Corporation for National and Community Service, says Lucke, adding that it’s a Senior Corps program.

It also receives in-kind funding from two Albany restaurants — Jacopetti’s Catering and Carino’s Italian, which take turns bringing meals to the monthly training sessions.

The benefits of helping kids, getting out of the house and socialization, aren’t the only goodies for older adults living on fixed incomes. The volunteers get a small stipend of $2.65 per hour in addition to meal and mileage reimbursements and monthly training.

The stipend doesn’t affect social security, and most use it for prescriptions, Lucke says. Plus, the service adds holiday pay for the volunteers when school isn’t in session. Volunteers also can receive paid time off if they are sick. “This year we had to come up with a snow day policy, too,” she says.

One volunteer, Sharon Akerfelds — known to her Head Start students as Grammy Sharon — puts her stipend in a savings account to allow her to do special things when her own grown children come to visit.

“It’s neat, it’s part of a federal program sponsored locally by the Council of Governments and visible to the entire population,” Lucke says.

Most important is getting seniors out both with the children and other adults. “Many times, seniors only visit their grandchildren once or twice a year, especially if their children live far away,” Lucke says. “This program builds intergenerational activities and meets critical communication needs while providing life changing opportunities for seniors.”

While some volunteers drive themselves to the schools, others enjoy walking, and those who don’t drive can use Dial-a-Bus for transportation.

Each volunteer is assigned to a classroom teacher or a librarian. After a strict background check, volunteers receive specific assignment plans developed by Lucke, who works with both the teachers and the grandparents.

Akerfelds works about five hours a day, three days a week with Head Start Sunnyside. She has a morning class with 3- to 4-year-olds lasting about 3 1/2 hours, and an afternoon class for 4- to 5-year-olds for up to two hours.

Sharon Marie has been part of the program for about two years. She’s worked at elementary and middle schools, now at College Hill, the alternative high school in Corvallis. She works five days and up to 35 hours a week.

Akerfelds is starting her 16th year with the program after “falling in love with the 3- to 4-year-olds at Head Start when she was learning about the program.

“Some of these children are emotionally needy for someone to love and listen to them,” she says. “A lot of times, many young children aren’t heard, but by listening to their voice inflections you can tell that there’s something wrong in their world. I’m here to tell them their feelings are important.”

Marie agrees, noting the teens she works with often want “someone positive to listen to them without giving them advice. One student noted during a conference that I was their best friend,” she says proudly.

Akerfelds often works with children who are upset, throwing tantrums, crying for their parents or needing special help, she adds, which allows the teacher to carry on with the other students.

“I teach by example,” she says. “I help them with printing and letter recognition and with colors and shapes. I also work with rhyming words like ‘cow and now,’ and reading.”

Akerfelds notes, without boasting, that about 10 years ago, she bought approximately 25 books that she turned into a lending library. The children have cards and can take the books home. When they bring them back she checks them back into the now 350-book library. If they’ve shown respect for the book and treated it well they receive stickers, she adds.

Even though Akerfelds can’t always remember her students, they remember her. Sometimes at the library or grocery store, teens come up and ask if she remembers them, calling her Grammy Sharon. A couple of teenage students even brought up a library story time she’d held when they were much younger.

Although Marie was a bit concerned about working with students at an alternative school, she says each one shows her respect, thanks her for the help, and she is truly enjoying her work.

“All these students are well behaved and respectful,” she says. “They give back to me because I can see their improvements in their work and their social skills.”

Both Akerfelds and Marie note the program also works for them in providing them with a purpose and the ability to meet people and watch the children grow.

The program is not strictly graded. “We aggregate data at the end of the year,” Lucke says. “We track the academic gains and survey volunteers to track qualitative gains. This intergenerational plan works and it is amazing.”

The program doesn’t name or follow up the students, she says. “I do site visits with the volunteers. While it’s a lot of work, I have an intern from Oregon State University and two assistants. I do a lot of planning ahead and drink a lot of coffee.”

She took on the job in 2013 after moving from Florida where she taught Spanish. “I’ve been very influenced by my grandparents all my life,” she says. “This job was meant for me because I’ve been around seniors all my life. I may work a lot of hours, but I love my job and I’ve been spoiled by the volunteers.”

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