Foster Grandparent Program fills a gap for children, seniors

The pre-school teacher gave the little boy his coat, and he immediately ran to "Grandpa Frank" for assistance.

In another classroom at the University City Children's Center, a girl sat on the lap of "Grandma Ann" listening intently as the volunteer read a book to her.

The early learning center serves children from six weeks to 6 years old. The volunteers are from the Foster Grandparent Program operated by Cardinal Ritter Senior Services, a Catholic Charities agency providing a continuum of care to senior adults throughout the archdiocese.

Cardinal Ritter works with 20 sites in St. Louis, placing the volunteers close to their homes. The Foster Grandparents work in Head Start locations and crisis nurseries.

"We provide one-on-one attention, support and love and also help with preparing kids for school readiness," said Aarya Locker, who oversees the Foster Grandparent Program for Cardinal Ritter.

The program fills a big need for children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because of their family incomes.

"The Foster Grandparents are able to help the teachers give more individual attention to the kids and set them up for greater success when they go to kindergarten," Locker said.

Early intervention sets up "a lifelong, positive attitude toward learning and taking academic risks," she added.

Frank Weeden, a retired construction worker and high school teacher, engages the children with puzzles, Play-Doh and books.

Being a foster grandparent "keeps me young," he said. "If you sit around, you get stale. It's something for me to look forward to."

Plus, he's learned that "when you help somebody, you help yourself."

The impact of the easy-going man with a knack for connecting and supporting kids is widespread. One child's mother told the staff that every night the boy says thanks for "Grandpa Frank."

Annie Carrawell no longer leaves the classroom without telling the children where she's going because they got upset when she didn't inform them. When they see her before school starts, they get excited and wave to her.

"I have so much fun with them. This gives me energy and motivation to keep going," said Carrawell, who was a stay-at-home mom, babysat and worked retail before retiring.

Her role includes playing ball, reading, eating and using building blocks with 2-year-olds. Classroom teacher Melinda Looby said the teachers don't often have the chance to sit, comfort or read to an individual child, so Carrawell fills that void. "She's like a superhero," Looby added.

Dorothy McGaughey, retired from nursing work and as an activity director, smiled while relating that she gets undivided attention when she has snacks such as popcorn and Goldfish for the children. She enjoys helping the 3- and 4-year-olds identify shapes, colors and numbers. The children tell her stories and take turns doing artwork.

"Being with the kids keeps my mind alert. They're a joy to be with," said McGaughey, who has 11 grandchildren but only one who lives in St. Louis.

The volunteers provide a missing link for the children who miss their parents and grandchildren, said teacher Teri Alexander. "It's a great opportunity to bridge that gap," she said.

According to Tameka Cook, volunteer program manager, some of the children at the center have younger or no grandparents, so they don't have the wisdom and experience the Foster Grandparent volunteers provide. The generations complement each other, with the grandparents aiding the social and emotional development of children, Cook said.

The volunteers develop friendships with each other and with the staff. At the University City location, their support is built into the curriculum. "We invite them into the work, and they have ownership of it," Cook said.

One youngster, overhearing a conversation with Foster Grandparent volunteer Bill Beauman, teased the retired chemist by saying, "You're old." Beauman laughed and reminded the little guy that "everyone is old compared to you."

Beauman said his role has been a good fit and the program is well run, adding his thanks to Cardinal Ritter and the Archdiocese of St. Louis. 

Foster Grandparent Program

The federally funded Foster Grandparent Program was established in 1965 to assist seniors in volunteering as role models, mentors and friends with children. The participants provide the comfort and love that sets children on a path toward a successful future.

Foster Grandparent volunteers must be age 55 or older, meet income guidelines set by the National Senior Service Corporation and demonstrate an interest and ability to care for young children and adolescents. Foster Grandparent volunteers receive a stipend and are entitled to vacation and sick-leave time.

For information on the Foster Grandparent program, contact Aarya Locker at (314) 918-2298 or visit www.stlouisreview.com/Tdl. 

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