Ben Torres/Special Contributor
Volunteer grandmas fill a special place in class for these Dallas preschoolers
by Bruce Tomaso, Special Contributor | June 11, 2019
Being a volunteer grandma is good for you. That’s what an independent, federally financed study reveals.
It’s also good for the little ones being nurtured by the foster grandparents. That’s what the broad smiles on the faces of preschoolers at a southern Dallas Head Start center reveal.
“The benefits really do work both ways,” says Triste Vasquez-White, director of the Foster Grandparent Program administered locally by the Senior Source, a nonprofit clearinghouse for programs that serve older residents of Dallas County.
“Our volunteer grandparents get to do something helpful for the community. It’s so much better for them than sitting at home watching television. And the kids they work with get to spend time with an older adult who can help them develop needed social and emotional skills.”
How it works
The Foster Grandparent Program, established in 1965, is part of the Senior Corps, a national effort to enlist older Americans in programs that help them while helping their communities.
In Dallas, the program pairs low-income senior volunteers with preschoolers, also typically from low-income families, at dozens of locations, from Head Start centers to private academies to nonprofits throughout the city. The seniors assist staff members at the organizations where they’re assigned by helping with classroom assignments, passing out snacks, teaching their young charges how to tie their shoes and offering a loving hug on those mornings when sadness or loneliness spill out in tears.
“We’re teachers, we’re counselors, grandparents — whatever it takes us to be for our children, that’s what we have to be,” says June Robinson, a foster grandparent at the Wanda Meshack Smith Head Start Center near Interstate 20 and U.S. 67.
Robinson, 70, has been a foster grandparent for four years. She works at the Head Start center with her sister, Loretta Stovall, 80, who’s been in the foster program for eight years.
Comfort and caring
Many of the 3- to 5-year-olds they work with come from struggling households.
“It breaks your heart when they show up in the morning and you can see that they’re upset, crying and all,” Stovall says. “When that happens, you just talk to them, listen to them, instill in them that they’re loved and wanted.”
Vasquez-White says the Dallas program involves about 120 foster grandparents who have served more than 6,600 special-needs children, collectively volunteering more than 112,000 hours of their time.
In 2014, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the federal agency that oversees the Foster Grandparents Program and other volunteering initiatives, commissioned a two-year study of the health and well-being of older volunteers. It found that seniors who pitch in for their communities reap tangible rewards for themselves as well as for those they serve.
Eighty-four percent of senior volunteers interviewed for the study reported improved or stable health after two years of service. Of those who initially exhibited symptoms of depression, 78 percent said they felt less depressed two years later. Among those who initially said they lacked companionship, 88 percent said they felt less isolated after volunteering.
Those findings come as no surprise to Stovall and Robinson, the sister volunteers at Head Start.
“Doing this helps me a lot,” Robinson says. “To know you’re needed, to see the difference you can make for these children — as old as we are, well, that means the world to us.”
Becoming a foster grandparent
The Foster Grandparent Program is open to low-income seniors 55 or older. Volunteers serve 15 to 40 hours a week. They undergo 20 hours of training before placement, then four hours of in-service training monthly.
Foster grandparents receive a stipend of $2.65 an hour. This stipend is not defined as income and therefore does not affect other benefits or assistance that participants receive. Volunteers also get a daily meal at the sites where they’re placed, as well as car or bus fare.
For more information, contact the Senior Source, 3910 Harry Hines Blvd., Dallas. 214-823-5700. TheSeniorSource.org.
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