THE BLOG
09/05/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2014

San Pasqual Academy Grandparents Program: A Unique Volunteer Living Option for Seniors

This is a narrative about volunteer surrogate "Grandparents living among teens (who are not related) in a rural, residential school setting far from the crowds of urban Southern California -- and loving it.

Grandparents are part of a unique program of the San Pasqual Academy, a San Diego County run and State of California sup-ported residential school for foster teens started in 2001. Located in the San Pasqual valley near Escondido, the 238-acre campus is rimmed by citrus groves within an agricultural region that includes horse ranches, wineries and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. The facility houses around 100 students from across the State who live in well-appointed and supervised small-group residences and attend classes on the campus. The Grandparents live in houses on campus and plan their interactions with students based on their talents and interests.

Grandma Jean
I have visited Grandma Jean, a visual artist and long-time volun-teer during the 10 years she has been in residence, and look for-ward to my escape to this beautiful campus and a visit with one of my best friends. Usually during the Christmas holiday she hosts a poetry slam at her house. Students share their poetry, read from other poets, and may watch and critique a poetry documentary.

Then she will often serve some kind of fluffy mixed fruit drink con-coction to mixed reviews. And as they say: "a good time was had by all." She remains my BFF and is lauded by everybody she meets for her dedication and engagement with the students. Recently, the County of San Diego awarded her a Volunteer-of-the-Year recognition. I applaud her quixotic sense of humor and her affection for the students.

My most recent trip offered me a chance to meet some newly arrived Grandparents and to renew my acquaintance with some of them who had been there for years. I was interested in learning about why people volunteer for a program like the one at San Pasqual Academy. It seemed that they were finding ways to enrich their lives through a change in lifestyle and physical location.
What were their backgrounds and interests, and how did they plan on integrating them into the program? Now let me continue my narrative by talking about several other Grandparents.

Grandma Kelly
This 94-year-old dynamo had been at San Pasqual Academy since the beginning of the program. She was a story of love and courage. A survivor of several major illnesses and medical pro-cedures, she moved away for a few months, but finding that she missed her " home" at the Academy too much, she earned a re-turn. Adored by students this 76 lb. woman represents a perfect example of 'true grit.'

Her interaction with the student body was enthusiastic and regular. This, coupled with a wry sense of humor and fondness for her position, made her a presence to behold. She was fearless at navigating the paved walkways and dirt paths in her customized golf cart, waving to everyone she saw.

Sadly, I learned a few weeks ago that she has passed away. She will be missed not only by her teen grandkids but by other Grand-parents who also admired her energy and commitment.

Grandpa Jeff
This spouse of Grandma Jean, he is an imposing, almost seven- foot-tall gentleman who has taken up video arts to become the of-ficial documentarian of San Pasqual Academy. He organized a popular chess club for the teens and sponsors an annual chess tournament on campus. Two hallmarks of his life, as a long time tai chi instructor and a champion of physical fitness the older adults, continues to be important to him. His booming baritone voice can be heard around campus as he maneuvers his electric vehicle up and down the hilly paths.

Several new Grandparents have happily settled on campus since my last visit and each is unique and adds additional enrichment to the academy. But, most of all, they're all just interesting people!

Grandpa Leroy
Most of the Grandparents are retired. Grandpa Leroy is not. He runs a bakery in Oceanside, California and is a master chef. Frequently he will come early to the academy kitchen and whip up sweet potato pies. He is also an accomplished musician and a remarkable storyteller. I witnessed his recitation (in dialect) of a Paul Lawrence Dunbar poem at Grandma Jean's house one evening and found it on point and fascinating. The students were mesmerized.

Grandpa Lauren
I have to admit to being surprised to learn that one of the recent arrivals was and is still a surfing enthusiast. No, I don't mean 'ob-server.' I mean active surfer who drives with surfboard in tow to the Pacific Ocean just about every day. He is fit with an energy level (it appears to me) on the level of a man half his age. He coaches softball and volleyball and obviously enjoys outdoor sports.

Grandpa Bill
Arriving from New Hampshire late last year, this pilot brought a cache of model airplanes and his dreams of designing and constructing his own drone. Several students have been drawn to join his model airplane club and, who knows who will be inspired to become a pilot. He still fly's his own plane.

Grandma Christina
Christina vibrant "fashionista," is a retired fashion instructor from a local community college who plans to share her design and fabri-cation talents with the girls. She had just arrived when I met her and, I was impressed by her enthusiasm for her new gig.

Picture This:
When I arrived for my visit this past winter there was no snow on the mountains. It was supposed to be the rainy season but California was in full-fledged drought mode. And it still is. The very dry valley landscape was suffering. But the orange trees were still producing, and we enjoyed balmy days and cool nights.

At twilight every day on a road near the campus, I glimpsed large flocks of crows flying back to their roosts in the trees and settling in for the night. On campus I smiled at the curious sight of the resident big eyed night owl observing the scene with some detachment from his T-pole perch -- his catch of the day positioned close by. And, as the typical night chill arrived on schedule, some Grandparents meandered out doors to relax on their patios to watch the sun melt into the mountains.

When I visit San Pasqual Academy, I am surrounded by the ca-dences of unidentifiable critters, and I am always amazed at how I can actually see the stars. And not only the stars in the sky, but the teen stars who have an opportunity for a better life, and the "Grandparent" stars, who are committed to sharing their talents and making a difference in the teens lives. Both of them benefit from this wonderful and unique partnership -- and I am glad that San Pasqual Academy exists.

This was my prep every night for a great sleep. Heaven.

Viva San Pasqual Academy!

Note: One of the nine fires that erupted around San Diego in early May this year came within a few miles of San Pasqual Academy Academy. Thankfully it was controlled before it came closer. Six years ago a devastating fire roared through San Pasqual Academy Valley and destroyed many of the homes of Grandparents on the campus, but spared most of the other campus structures.

Pat Johnson
Grannies on Safari