Foster grandparent program can make big impact on kids, volunteers

Al Wortman, a foster grandparent from Hoover Elementary School in North Mankato is a former teacher and professor. He mostly helps students who need help in reading and math. Contributed photo

Many of us grew up with our grandparents living nearby or even in the same house. Today’s young families often live several states away from grandparents, and contact is limited to holidays and other special occasions. Still, the wish for intergenerational connection continues. One opportunity for establishing relationships with youngsters is the Foster Grandparent Program. Through this program, a person 55 years or older volunteers in a school, helping with classroom activities or working one-on-one with individual students.

Last year, 3,504 students in 18 Minnesota counties benefited from interaction with a Foster Grandparent, according to Gail Sumerfelt, the coordinator of Caregiver and Companion Services, a program of Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota. Teachers’ reports on about two-thirds of the students indicated that 96 percent of them had met their assigned plan goals. The benefits to the Foster Grandparents may be less measurable, but they are no less real.

For Al Wortman, his work as a Foster Grandparent at Hoover Elementary School in North Mankato is a change of pace from his former career as a music teacher and professor. He said, “I mostly help the kids who are having trouble with reading and math. I learned a new teaching vocabulary, including new math. You just have to speak in the language the kids are used to hearing.”

Rosealice Hayes, who is a Foster Grandparent in Maple Lake, began volunteering with the program 12 years ago, at age 80. “Grandma Rosie,” as she’s called, said, “Being a Foster Grandparent has made my life really worthwhile. I keep going at 92.”

A Foster Grandparent receives a non-taxable stipend of $2.65 per hour for 10-20 volunteer hours weekly, as well as transportation reimbursement, ongoing training and recognition, and liability insurance while volunteering in a public or parochial school. Some Foster Grandparents eat a meal with the children.

Betty Kaveney volunteers at Kid’s Corner in St. Peter. She is holding Aden Berlanga. Contributed photo

Sumerfelt visits all sites in the program every other month, where she leads a group meeting as well as providing training and handouts on topics such as autism or classroom do’s and don’ts. Each year she provides back-to-school training and end-of-school training, as well as four state-wide video conferences. Foster Grandparents also are required to have two hours of independent study from a website. Before becoming volunteers, they undergo fingerprinting and a background check through the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FBI.    

Experience in teaching is not required of a Foster Grandparent, although some, like Hayes, connect what they learned as teachers with what they do as a Foster Grandparent. Hayes said, “When I taught in country school in South Dakota, I had about a dozen students in various grades. I saw what individual attention could do for their development. When you work with children academically one-on-one, you can see the behavior improve. I really think so many more people could do this in the schools.”     

Wortman, who learned about the Foster Grandparent program from a neighbor, has volunteered in kindergarten through fifth grade. He said, “In kindergarten, they read to me from the books at their level. It was a fun, exciting experience. This year, I’m working with students in third and fourth grades. With math, it’s them not having to do it under pressure; it’s the repetition. In writing, sometimes it’s just encouraging them to put their experiences on paper. I like working with the kids and seeing them progress, knowing I can contribute something positive to their lives and to their school experience.”

Hayes, who has volunteered in all grades from kindergarten through sixth and worked individually with one boy through each of the grades, said, “This year I’m in second grade because of a greater need there. I work with a small group of children or one child, right in the classroom. I have my own little desk, and the children sit around the desk or around a table. Some of what I do is academic and some is just making them feel better, building their self-esteem. The teachers I work with are wonderful teachers. They know which students need the most help  academically or in behavior. Those students can learn because I’m right there, and they can focus. I do everything, and I love it.”

Judy Lund is a foster grandparent who volunteers at Head Start in Hutchinson. She enjoys making a connection with the kids and watching them gain new skills and confidence. Photo by Tasha Dahle

Hayes said she occasionally encounters former students who greet her when she’s shopping or in a restaurant. Her favorite grade in which to volunteer is second grade, where, last year, two of her great-grandchildren were in class. She said, “In second grade, the child is beginning to be independent in thinking and working, but also still thinks the adults know what they’re doing.”

A potential Foster Grandparent who may not be enthusiastic about helping a student with potentially challenging math problems may consider volunteering in kindergarten or even pre-school classes. Karen Konerza is one of several Foster Grandparents who serve about 100 kindergartners in five classrooms at Lincoln Elementary School in Glencoe. Now in her seventh year as a volunteer, she became involved when she saw a newspaper ad and thought, “I should check this out. I can quit if I don’t like it.”

“After a couple of years, I realized that the kids who misbehave are probably lacking attention,” Konerza said, “so they get attention from a Foster Grandparent, and we benefit their learning. In kindergarten, we work on learning shapes, printing the alphabet, spelling, learning to read and coloring within the lines, which helps them to learn to move a pencil.

“I  see somebody smile and do something they thought they couldn’t do,” Konerza said. “It’s just rewarding and heart-warming. You see you made a difference.”   

Some Foster Grandparents, like Judy Lund of Hutchinson, volunteer at the pre-kindergarten level. Lund, who read a notice about Foster Grandparents in her church bulletin, is now in her 11th year with Head Start.

“I started thinking it was something I could do,” Lund said, “so I contacted Gail Sumerfelt, who said they had an opening in Head Start, which is the two years before kindergarten. I’m there from 8 a.m. to about 2:30 p.m., which includes breakfast and lunch.”

Lund provides another pair of eyes and ears to guide the children and keep them safe.

“Often this means listening to what the child is saying or watching what they are doing while re-directing, encouraging and sometimes comforting,” said Lund. “We work on things like counting, shapes, building with blocks and sorting by color, but we also help the kids with problem solving and developing skills taught through play and practice. Our goal is to help the children be prepared for kindergarten.”

Breakfast and lunch is a good time to visit, learn and connect on a different level, said Lund.

“We all sit around the table, family style, and I eat along with them. I help them dish up food and pass food. They learn table manners and how to clear the table.

Gail Sumerfelt is the Program Supervisor for the Senior Corps Programs.

“I interact with the children in their playing,” Lund said. “We have a little house, blocks, a library, a sand table and more.

The Head Start group goes outdoors to play every day, except when it is raining or below zero.

Like Lund, Betty Kaveney volunteers with young children. After working in manufacturing for many years, Kaveney saw an ad recruiting Foster Grandparents, which she saw as an opportunity for a change of pace. Although she has six children, 14 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren whom she sees on holidays and other special occasions, she has volunteered at Kids Center Day Care in St. Peter for more than 14 years. She works five hours a day, three days a week, with about 10 children, ages 16 months to 28 months.

“First of all, they come running and hug me around the legs,” Kaveney said. “I say ‘good morning,’ and they have breakfast. Then I sit in ‘Grandma’s chair’ and read to the whole group. I wipe noses, put on a shoe that has come off of a child, console them if they get a bump and cuddle them with a blanket. Sometimes I have one on each knee. I wash their hands for lunch and help put them down for their naps before I leave. The time goes fast.”

Foster Grandparents have the satisfaction of knowing they are making a difference in children’s lives. Lund said she appreciates when a child gives her a hug, but one of her most gratifying moments came in her first year. She was picking up blocks with a boy who said to her, “‘Everyone says I’m dumb, but I come here and you tell me I’m smart.’ It is a great feeling to get to know the children and see how their confidence builds as they learn new things.”

There currently are 50 Foster Grandparents in the program that Sumerfelt coordinates. She said, “A Foster Grandparent can begin at any time during the school year, but close to the start of the year is best. I’ll take as many Foster Grandparents as I can get.”

Sumerfelt can be contacted at gail.sumerfelt@lssmn.org or by phone at 507-530-2295.