Forever Young

Throughout this year, Out & About is profiling local volunteers and the programs in which they serve. The series is being developed in cooperation with the State Office of Volunteerism, and we hope it will show readers how they can improve their communities by volunteering their time and talents. For information about volunteering opportunities through the state, visit VolunteerDelaware.org.

Working with children at schools, daycare centers and Head Start programs puts a spring in the step of Foster Grandparent volunteers

Ruth Carroll is 86. Barbara Willing is 84. Both women found their Fountain of Youth 20 years ago.

That’s when they launched new lives as volunteers by becoming foster grandparents.

Sixty-seven-year-old Nardalisa Medina joined the program just six years ago, and she says she plans on staying around until she’s 70. “And then maybe until I’m 75 or 76, if I’m in good health,” she adds.

Ask any of them and they’ll acknowledge without hesitation that there’s a certain magic to hanging out with toddlers and preschoolers for 20 hours or more a week. It keeps them young.

“It’s fun to be able to act like a child,” says Willing, who volunteers at the Guardian Angel Childcare Center, a branch of the Ministry of Caring, in downtown Wilmington.

Carroll, Willing and Medina, all Wilmington residents, are among more than 180 participants in the Foster Grandparents program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in Delaware last year. It’s part of the Senior Corps, a branch of the federal Corporation for National and Community Service. Participants work primarily with young children at schools, daycare centers and Head Start programs.

“The children usually have some challenges, either economic or learning issues or behavior issues,” says Nancy Carney, the state’s program manager for Foster Grandparents.

The role of the foster grandparent varies according to the child’s needs, Carney says. Babies might need rocking, toddlers might crave a hug and a little extra attention, preschoolers might want help with coloring or solving a puzzle, and kindergartners might benefit from help in reading or developing literacy skills.

101-Year-Old Volunteer

Volunteers say they didn’t join the program because of the stipend it provides, though they admit having a supplement to Social Security benefits certainly helps. Rather, they say they joined—and stayed—because they love being around children.

Photo Joe del Tufo

And stay they do. One of the current foster grandparents signed up 34 years ago, and another is 101 years old, says Kanani Munford, senior administrator of the state Office of Volunteerism. Although the minimum age for participation is 55, many people that age are still working, so most foster grandparents fall into the 70 to 75 age range, she says.

Most foster grandparents are women, but “we have a wonderful group of men who are strongly represented,” Munford says.

With many young children in low-income families lacking male role models, the program would like to see an increase in the number of men volunteering as foster grandparents, Carney says.

While the office does engage in some recruiting efforts, largely at community centers and senior centers, word of mouth is probably the best recruiting tool, she says. That’s how Willing got involved after moving back to Wilmington from Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1997.

“A friend asked me if I was getting tired of looking at the four walls in my apartment,” she recalls. “I told her that I was, and she started telling me about foster grandparents.” It didn’t take long for her to be hooked.

Willing has long had a soft spot for children, starting from when she was 8 years old and helped take care of her baby sister. “My mother taught me how to change cloth diapers,” she says. “And I’d take my sister out in her carriage, put her on a blanket under a tree and read stories to her.”

Hugs & Love

She raised three children of her own, plus six stepchildren, a nephew and a granddaughter. And today, she’s still reading stories and dispensing hugs whenever they’re needed.

“These children really need somebody to hug them, to say ‘I love you,’” she says. With so many single-parent families, parents working two jobs to make ends meet, or sometimes having a parent in prison, “some of those kids don’t get that at home.”

As a farmer’s daughter who grew up milking cows and cleaning their stalls before going to work, first in a bakery and later at a chicken processing plant, Willing is accustomed to working. And she shows no signs of slowing down.

“I said that when I got my crystal vase and my 20-year certificate that I’d quit,” she says. But when she reached the 20-year mark last December, she changed her mind. “I think I’ll try for five more years. As long as I can keep getting on the bus … I could go to the senior center but that’s not like working with children. All they ever do [at the senior center] is sit around and talk about everybody else.”

“I love the intergenerational aspect that we get from foster grandparents,” says Janet Chandler, director of Guardian Angel Childcare, where Willing serves. “The little children can relate to Mom-Mom or Grandma if they have one in their lives, and if they don’t, they can build that relationship.”

While the regular employees of the center have specific responsibilities, foster grandparents “don’t have an agenda,” Chandler says. “They’re here to offer love, to offer guidance.”

“They’re an extra pair of eyes, an extra pair of hands,” adds Sister Kathleen Pollard, the center’s assistant director.

Many foster grandparents live near the schools or daycare centers where they serve, and their knowledge of the neighborhood and the people who live there is an added benefit, she says. “They know some of the kids. They know some of the families. It helps us build our relationship with the children.”

Lasting Relationships

Some of the relationships Willing has built have lasted for years.  While shopping one day at Concord Mall, she was surprised by a young voice calling out from behind her, “Mom-Mom Barbara.” It was a little girl, now elementary school age, whom she had cared for two or three years earlier.

Another time, at a Walgreen’s, Willing asked a woman in her 20s for help getting an item off a high shelf. “Hi, Miss Barbara,” the woman said, identifying herself as a child she had helped nearly two decades ago.

Like Willing, Ruth Carroll heard about foster grandparents from a friend. After retiring from a career as a cook in a public school cafeteria and at a retirement home, Carroll was caring for her ailing husband but was looking for a productive way to spend the hours that she didn’t have to be with him. She joined Foster Grandparents and began serving at Mom’s House, a childcare center that supports single mothers who have had unplanned pregnancies by helping them continue their education and find employment.

Over 20 years, Carroll has seen a lot of the Mom’s House staff come and go, but she enjoys spending 20 hours a week in the program’s family atmosphere.

“The kids are so nice, and everybody who works here is so nice,” she says, adding that mothers helped by the program often come back to visit and bring their children with them.

“All that I can do, I try to do it,” she says, running through a list that includes reading stories, playing games, helping children learn to write their names, as well as activities like coloring, cutting and pasting. 

Medina, who also serves at Guardian Angel Childcare, says she likes everything about her volunteer work and “enjoys every moment” she spends with the young children. “They’re starting to talk now,” she says, noting that their budding conversational skills help her build stronger relationships with them.

“By talking to them,” Sister Kathleen adds, “the foster grandparents help the little ones develop their social skills, and provide them with a little extra confidence.”

The benefits of foster grandparenting are reciprocal. By helping the children thrive, the seniors get something significant in return. “When they make the commitment,” Carney says, “it gives them a sense of purpose, and it keeps them young.”

ABOUT FOSTER GRANDPARENTING

Foster grandparents serve for 15 to 40 hours a week in daycare centers, Head Start programs, schools and youth and family service centers. Participants must be age 55 or over, have a limited income and submit to a criminal history check. Benefits include a tax-free stipend based on hours served; paid holidays, vacation and sick leave; and a free annual physical.

To learn more about the program, call 255-9688 in northern New Castle County, 696-3120 in southern New Castle County, 857-5016 in Kent County, or 515-3037 in Sussex County.

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