It is a familiar image: a grandparent sitting with their grandkids, reading books and recounting old stories. The Foster Grandparent Program of Northern Nevada is rekindling just those relationships by sending volunteer grandparents into schools across Northern Nevada.
A program that grew from a pilot project in the late 1960s, The Foster Grandparent Program places seniors into schools, juvenal detention centers and transitional housing facilities "to focus on helping at-risk youth of all ages," says Mary Brock, executive director.
The volunteers come from all backgrounds and are often brought to the program after hearing about its successes from their friend. Some of the seniors are retired teachers, but Brock explains that "we have some volunteers that have not worked, they were housewives growing up and raised their own children and grandchildren and want to continue helping children."
After going through a short evaluation and training period, the volunteer grandparent is placed in the position that would be both the best fit for them and the children. The majority of them go to elementary, middle and high schools and provide support to the teachers who have large classes to deal with.
It is a real collaboration between the program and the teachers. They rely on the teachers to tell them which children are in need of the most help, those who "seem to be withdrawn or a little behind in reading or behind in math."
The grandparents are placed predominantly in Title I schools, where children are most likely to need some extra support from the school, and they already serve more than 2,500 students across Northern Nevada.
The students benefit in many ways from the presence of these foster grandparents. As Brock says, "there's little to no contact with the older generation" and the potential benefits from relationships between young and old are not being fully explored.
When asked the question, "what do you think of when you think of seniors?" one high school class answered with typical answers: "cranky, old, hard of hearing, no teeth, the whole range of descriptors come out."
In that class, the students were going to teach seniors to use computers. As soon as the seniors came into the class, Brock says that "these high school kids melted. All these presuppositions about these personalities, these traits and these characteristics went away and there were relationships that formed."
The grandparents provide educational support in the form of someone to help the children with reading, which is vital to a successful school career. "They're able to read to these volunteers and there's just a nice inter-generational comfort there."
The positives are far from just educational, however. The grandparents are an impartial and non-judgmental presence. It's "somebody that's not their parent, somebody that's objective and outside, somebody that's patient and somebody that they feel they can trust," Brock says.
The program benefits the children and adults alike. While the children build a greater respect for seniors as well as a relationship that gives them both intellectual and emotional support, the volunteers also gain a great deal.
They see the difference they are making to the children around them but it also gives them a valuable pastime. One grandmother, Mary McGalliard, volunteers five days a week, an activity she has been enjoying for almost 23 years.
McGalliard says that "it has touched a part of my life that I kind of missed on my children -- I had to work when they were little -- and there are a lot of children that just need to be loved and understood." She goes on to say that "it's very good for us seniors because it keeps us going and makes us more independent."
With resources being cut from schools, these grandparents "really do step in and provide a supplemental resource" and without it, the more than 2,000 children that they help would be without the extra support they need to build a strong future.
The program has been popular and there is a waiting list of 23 schools that want the benefit of the volunteer grandparents. Foster Grandparents is always looking for more volunteers and funding to ensure they reach as many kids as possible.
"For the foster grandparent, it's making a difference in children's lives and senior's lives. These children receive a lot of benefit from the inter-generational contact and patience and love and mentoring and tutoring. So it's a win-win situation," Brock explains.
To find out more about the program or to volunteer to become a foster grandparent, visit their Facebook page.
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