Lisa Jenkins, project director for the Prince George’s County Department of Family Services Area Agency on Aging Foster Grandparent Program, coordinates volunteers at 11 sites around the county, many of which were chosen because they are within County Executive Rushern Baker’s six Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative communities: areas chosen for special focus from county services, to lift them out of poverty, criminality and social dysfunction. Suitland Elementary School became part of the program this year, and already has eight volunteers working in the school, every day.
“The Suitland Civic Association reached out to me, and we met with Ms. Preston, the principal, this summer,” said Jenkins, who added that her office is identifying additional sites throughout the county that could benefit from the program, which is funded by a federal grant administered by the Prince George’s County Department of Family Services. The program currently provides an income-based stipend for up to 64 volunteers. Next week, it goes up for budget negotiations with county government.
Most Foster Grandparents live within five miles of the school where they volunteer. Volunteers commit to work in a classroom for the entire school year, for anywhere from 20 to 40 hours each week, up to 1,044 hours per volunteer per school year.
“It is a commitment, but those persons who come into the program are here for years. We have volunteers who have been here for 15 years or more,” said Jenkins. “It’s good for the children and the Grannies. Our oldest is 91 and she’s there every day, and let me tell you, she’s on point.”
A partnership with the Prince George’s County Department of Public Works and Transportation provides transportation to and from school for Foster Grandparents who no longer drive.
Once a group of prospective Foster Grandparents volunteers and goes through the school system’s fingerprinting and background check, they receive orientation and training before being assigned a classroom. Their task is to focus on a few children considered at risk of repeating their grade because of struggles with the material, whether due to special educational needs or a challenging background. Working in small groups or one-on-one, the Foster Grandparents help children focus on their classwork, understand how to complete their assignments, learn how to handle strong feelings before they turn into destructive emotional outbursts and otherwise settle into the groove of class.
“Basically, they’re additional eyes and ears in the classroom,” said Jenkins.
Yvonne Edwards has volunteered with the program for ten years, and serves as Captain of the Foster Grandparents team at Suitland Elementary. She explained that when she arrives in class, her students are already working on their assignments. She sits with them and makes sure they understand what they need to do to complete the assignment correctly. She keeps active minds focused on the task at hand, and coaches the children through their work in math, reading and other basic skills they need to establish in their first few years at school.
“I have three to five students, and one in Special Ed, so every day I spend most of my time with him. He can’t keep up with the class. I’ve seen a great improvement in the one I work with. At the beginning of the year, he’d say, ‘I can’t read, I can’t spell,’ but he’s good at math; he’s trying,” said Edwards.
Foster Grandparents often take on the work that otherwise might be done by paraprofessionals in the classroom.
“We don’t go to take over the classroom,” said Barbara Brown of Suitland. “We ask the teachers, ‘How can we help you?’”
But as the name implies, there’s a lot more to it than helping students learn their ABCs. Like any traditional grandparent, these volunteers pour their decades of life experience and hearts full of love into the children they are assigned to help. The children learn quickly that their Foster Grandparent is committed to helping them handle school’s work and social struggles, and are a ready source of hugs on those days when they need them.
“I’ve told a little girl in my class, ‘Un-ball your fists. That’s not going to solve your problem. Get that frown off of your face, or everyone will pick up that attitude,” said volunteer JaNet Buckman of Suitland.
The volunteers agree that many of the children who struggle early on with reading, writing, math and other key skills can find third grade’s demands overwhelming and disheartening. Early intervention by Foster Grandparents can be key to helping them catch up with their classmates, especially when it comes from a loving and mature volunteer.
“If they don’t get reading in first or second grade, by third and fourth the teacher doesn’t have time for that,” said Gwendolyn Cooper of Suitland. “They’re very respectful of the teacher, but they’re really, really, really behind. If we weren’t there, they’d stay very behind. They need two Foster Grandparents in every classroom.”
The grandparents get a lot out of the program, too.
“They make you look forward to coming to school,” said Buckman. “I needed something to do and I like children. I heard about it in a town meeting, and I thought, it’ll keep me busy, not being idle at home doing nothing except cleaning a house. You get tired of that.”
Each of the volunteers at Suitland Elementary retired from a full career that had not left them much time to volunteer in schools when their children were young. Some have a background in education or social work, but it’s not the credentials that count, so much as the love for a new generation of children who need the same warmth and care they received from their grandparents, a generation ago.
“I knew all my grandparents. When we were growing up, they lived around the corner, and I could not get home from school fast enough to get those hot rolls (my grandmother had waiting for me),” said Edwards. “It makes a difference. You can really see in the classroom the children that don’t get that love.”
Many of the children these volunteers assist have never had that sort of relationship with a grandparent.
“A lot of the grandparents are so young--sometimes grandma is 31 and doesn’t want to be involved, doesn’t want to be called ‘Grandma,’” said Cooper.
Suitland Elementary School Principal Pamela Preston praised the volunteers for the results she sees among her students.
“They’re doing a fabulous job here. It’s been awesome,” Preston said.
For information on volunteering as a Foster Grandparent, contact Project Director Lisa Jenkins at 301-265-8462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.