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Foster Grandparents help fill in needs at schools

Foster Grandparent Vivian Strickland helps one of her students at Bertram Caruthers Elementary School in Kansas City, Kansas, with her homework. The Foster Grandparent program in Wyandotte County is a federal program of AmeriCorps Seniors administered since 1976 by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. PHOTO COURTESY OF CATHOLIC CHARITIES

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — For Dorothy M. Mitchell, being a Foster Grandparent is about the love.

“What makes me feel good is when the child comes up and says, ‘I love you, Grandma Mitchell,’ and I in turn say, ‘I love you, too,’” said Mitchell, a retired public school paraprofessional.

“And I always compliment them — ‘I like your haircut.’ ‘You’ve got new tennis shoes, I like those.’ It puts a little smile on their face and makes them feel good,” she added.

Sometimes, they want to hold her hand. Sometimes, they need a hug. Sometimes, the little girls want to wear her earrings.

“I tell them, ‘No, these are not for children,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell has been a Foster Grandparent for six years. This fall, she’ll return to Welborn Public Elementary School in Kansas City, Kansas, to work 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays, with the kindergartners.

The Foster Grandparent program in Wyandotte County is a federal program of AmeriCorps Seniors administered since 1976 by Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, said Shelia Freeman, project director.

A Foster Grandparent is a federal volunteer who gives individual attention to children with special needs at schools, child care centers or Head Start centers.

They nurture the child’s growth and development. In the classroom, they assist teachers by being an extra pair of eyes and hands — and heart as well.

Although they are volunteers, they receive a tax-free stipend, mileage reimbursement and paid time off.

Foster Grandparent Velma Jean McReynolds chats with one of her kids at Bertram Caruthers Elementary School in Kansas City, Kansas. COVID hit the program hard and is in need of additional volunteers. PHOTO COURTESY OF CATHOLIC CHARITIES

Foster Grandparents must be age 55 or older, meet federal income guidelines, be a resident of Wyandotte County, pass background checks, pass a physical, attend a 24-hour orientation and undergo ongoing training.

“The Foster Grandparent program puts an adult in the classroom who helps the children with their reading and math,” said John Hopkins Jr., a Foster Grandparent for six years. He will return to Caruthers Public Elementary School in Kansas City, Kansas.

“A Foster Grandparent is an aide to the teacher and is there for the children,” he said. “There is a lot of interaction between the children and the Foster Grandparent. It’s nice for the teacher — we assist them with their work.”

The children will sometimes read to him, and he will help them with their mathematics. Hopkins, a retired U.S. Army sergeant, has worked at three schools. He generally volunteers 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Mondays to Thursdays.

“It takes patience and the ability to give of yourself to the children,” he said. “You give them your time and attention and try to have a positive influence on them.”

There is always a need for more Foster Grandparents, but especially now. Many dropped out during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Freeman. She would like Foster Grandparents to return to Resurrection School and St. Patrick School, both in Kansas City, Kansas.

“We had 90 Foster Grandparents, but when the schools shut down, many of them decided to retire,” she said. “When the schools reopened in April 2021, many schools wanted their Foster Grandparents back. We were able to bring back 55.”

After recruitment and training, that number has risen to 61, but the program’s goal is to get back to 90. Foster Grandparents serve from preschool to high school, but it’s harder to place volunteers in the upper grades.

“It’s very difficult to place Foster Grandparents in middle schools or high schools,” said Freeman. “It’s very rare people want to work with those students.”

If you are a resident of Wyandotte County, are 55 years old or older, meet the income eligibility requirements and want to make a difference in the lives of children, you could become a Foster Grandparent, said Freeman. Contact her by email at: sfreeman@catholiccharitiesks.org, or call (913) 906-8920.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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