Seniors Find New Purpose In Mentoring Youths
Over the past 11 years, the Area Agency on Aging (AAA), which serves Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna, and Tioga Counties, has successfully matched retired individuals and couples with at-risk children to foster relationships that simultaneously nurture and fill voids in their respective lives, in addition to enhancing their educational experience.
According to AAA Foster Grandparent Program coordinator Marybeth Bolt, approximately 60 seniors are involved in the program at any given time, most of them maintaining regular schedules at area schools and childcare centers. Some spend all day in one classroom, while others may move about a school with an individual student during the course of a day or visit with several children at the same location.
The children come from various backgrounds and situations. Some are physically or emotionally challenged, while others may be lacking in social skills or struggling academically. Their problems may stem from a variety of situations, including having a parent who has been incarcerated or a parent who has been deployed in the military.
The foster grandparent program was designed to also provide a little extra income for seniors who need it and to provide an opportunity for interaction with both children and teachers.
“It gives them something meaningful to do,” Bolt said of the adult participants, some of whom have lost their spouses. For the children, Bolt continued, the relationship with the seniors helps them to build their confidence, whether the child’s challenges are in academics or related to a physical or mental handicap.
“It’s a very fulfilling thing to be able to work with these children and help them develop,” said Mary Douglas of North Towanda, a relative newcomer to the program. She works closely with the teachers from K4 through first grade at J. Andrew Morrow School in Towanda to help reinforce the lesson plan for each day and to ease the transition from the pupils’ home lives into the structured school environment.
“The children in my class are 4- and 5-yars-old,” said K4 teacher Sarah Burlingame, who expressed her appreciation for Douglas’s assistance, “so they need all of the positive adult support that they can get.”
“It makes me feel good to know that I have an opportunity to make a difference in a little (person’s) life each day,” Marlene VonVoigtlander-Lutz of Burlington Township concurred. “You take a child from where he’s at and help to elevate him.” This can be as simple, she explained, as some one-on-one play with alphabet cards that eventually leads to the formation and sight-recognition of simple words. VonVoigtlander-Lutz, who currently assists at J. Andrew Morrow School, has been a foster grandparent for 11 years.
“A foster grandparent is able to provide some extra personal attention that regular classroom teachers are not always able to provide due to their responsibility to focus on academic achievement,” Burlingame remarked.
Seniors also have much to gain from the program, Bolt suggested.
“This is what keeps me young,” stated Bob Roof, who shares foster grandparenting duties with his wife, Mary Jane at Moppets on Mulberry Child Enrichment Center (MMCEC) in South Towanda. Although they generally work separately, together they have made a big impact on the children and the staff in the four years they have worked there.
MMCEC teacher Lori Vanderpool related that both she and the children miss “Grandma” and “Poppy” on the one day per week that they don’t work at the center. Vanderpool noted that the Roofs, who reside in Standing Stone Township, are especially helpful when a student needs additional help with a lesson or social interaction. MMCEC director Tonya Ayers added that the foster grandparents help to fill important gaps in some of the youngster’s lives.
“Not all of the children come from traditional families, so the love and support that they get from the (foster) grandparents is invaluable,” Ayers explained.
“Some of them don’t have a male figure in their lives,” said Bob, who added that the children at the center often call out to him and his Mary Jane when they recognize the couple in public.
In the case of J. Andrew Morrow School, where most of the primary teachers are women, first-grade teacher Amy Riley suggested that the foster grandmothers there “add another motherly image” and a nurturing influence that helps the children learn respect, while also mastering elements of the curriculum.
“Another plus is the fact that the senior citizen would be helping to provide another positive role model for the next generations,” Burlingame added.
AAA provides three days of initial instruction and 48 hours of refresher training for eligible foster grandparent candidates, who must be at least 55-years-old and meet income requirements. Although all of the foster grandparents who were interviewed for this story have grandchildren, that is not a prerequisite for participation in the program. Bolt explained that the most important criteria is that the potential candidates have time in their schedules and room in their hearts to provide the extra little push that some children need to keep up with their fellow classmates.
Once accepted into the foster parenting program, participants receive a nominal stipend for their services. AAA also regularly coordinates lectures on a variety of topics that balance child-related issues with the importance of the foster grandparents maintaining their own health.
Pre-service training for eligible foster grandparents in Susquehanna County will take place from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Tuesday to Friday, June 14 to 17, at the AAA office in Montrose. Training for eligible Bradford and Sullivan county seniors is slated for Tuesday to Friday, July 19 to 22, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each day, at the AAA office in Towanda. For more information, interested readers may call AAA at 570-265-6121 or log on to www.aaaseniors.org.