Foster Grandparent Program seeks volunteers dedicated to student success
Last year, Debra Chandler, a volunteer within the Foster Grandparent Program in Haywood County, noticed a fifth grade student at Central Elementary School squinting as he tried to read the board in his classroom. Chandler mentioned to the teacher that she believed the student might need glasses. The teacher passed along the information to the boy’s parents, who were able to provide the glasses that the student so desperately needed.
“You’re an extra hand in the classroom,” Chandler said. “You see things that the teacher — or the teacher’s assistant — might not be able to notice because they’re busy with reading groups, for example.”
As a foster grandparent, Chandler is part of a nation-wide program that began Aug. 28, 1965 as a demonstration effort of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The Foster Grandparent Program, which has a volunteer age requirement of 55 or older, was founded to enable low-income persons to remain physically and mentally active and enhance their self-esteem through continued participation in community services. In turn, foster grandparents enable children with either exceptional or special needs to achieve improved physical, mental, emotional and social development.
“The program is a win-win,” Chandler said. “Not only do the seniors get motivated to keep active, but it benefits the children with their learning, and it is a big help to the teachers.”
Foster grandparents typically serve children in elementary schools, non-profit day care centers and at the federally-funded child development program Head Start. Yet with the average classroom size increasing year by year, foster grandparents provide a necessary service within elementary schools, especially, because they are able to pay attention to small details that might otherwise be overlooked — a student who cannot see the board, for example.
Chandler, who retired from Central Elementary School in 2010, is back in the classrooms at Central, working with children in Pre-K through fifth grade and helping them reach social, behavioral, developmental and educational goals.
“Being a teacher myself, I had two wonderful foster grandparents in my classroom over the years,” she said. “I was just in awe of both of them because they were getting up early, coming to school every day and they just did anything that you asked them to do that was within their limits. That attracted me to the program — knowing that I would still be serving my community even though I was a retired teacher.”
Community service is the core of the Foster Grandparent Program. In 1989, Mountain Projects was given a federal grant to operate the initiative, with 35 volunteer slots awarded to serve Haywood County alone. Now, the program has expanded under the care of Mountain Projects to serve all seven counties of Western North Carolina, including the Cherokee Indian reservation. Last year, foster grandparents worked with 179 elementary school students, 65 children in day care centers and eight children within Head Start.
The duties of foster grandparents vary according to the needs to a particular student, making the program highly individualized. Foster grandparents who volunteer within elementary schools, for example, develop a targeted work plan with the classroom teacher.
“Each of the children have a plan that is very specific,” said Jon Parsons, grants manager for Mountain Projects. “The work plan can be based on a behavioral issue or an academic issue — and it’s always an area that is measured at the end of the year.”
Parsons said that results have been positive across all seven WNC counties, with 100 percent of students making progress toward established goals and 78 percent meeting specific targeted goals.
“We feel that is very successful,” he said.
For foster grandparent volunteers who qualify based on income guidelines — eligibility is based upon the number of individuals in a person’s household as well as annual income — a small, tax-free stipend is provided along with the opportunity to earn annual leave, sick leave and some mileage reimbursement. The stipend enables those who qualify to participate as foster grandparents without incurring any personal cost.
Currently, the Foster Grandparent Program is seeking at least 10 new volunteers who are local in order to cover more elementary-age classrooms and additional Head Start programs. Although prior teaching experience does help, volunteers do not need to be former educators — but they do need to be committed to the mission of the program and the success of children with exceptional needs.
“It takes a special person to do this,” said Foster Grandparent Program Coordinator Mary Phillips.
To volunteer as a foster grandparent, or to receive more information about the program, contact Phillips by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 452-2370.