The first day of spring quarter at Spokane Falls Community College is challenging for many. But for children enrolled in the Head Start program at the Early Learning Center, it can be an especially stressful transition.
Fortunately, Linda Long had an extra pair of hands in her classroom to help soothe anxious kids. Diane Cumber expertly balanced a toddler on her hip while the girl offered bites of invisible food to a visitor from a small plastic spoon. Cumber’s two grandchildren are grown, but thanks to the Foster Grandparent Program, she still gets to nurture children.
As toddlers milled around her, she said, “I love it! This is very entertaining.” She gave her young charge a soft squeeze and smiled, “You’re supposed to cuddle them.”
The Foster Grandparent Program is a federal program administered locally by Catholic Charities, Spokane.
“We’ve got 60 foster grandparents, twice as many as Seattle,” said Michael Kenny program manager. “Spokane has a very giving attitude.”
Those 60 seniors work at 30 locations, including schools and community centers. Kenny said, “We try to place them with at-risk children. They serve as mentors and role models.” The grandparents receive a small stipend, transportation costs and a meal. In addition, a monthly in-service is offered with lunch provided.
But it’s what they receive in return that keeps them coming back year after year. At the North East Community Center, Elsie McCauley recently celebrated her 90th birthday with her young friends. She still drives herself to the center, four days a week. “I was bored when I retired,” she said. “I needed to occupy my time.” She’s been a foster grandparent for 27 years. “I play with the children. We do puzzles and play with Play-Doh,” she smiled. “It’s company.”
The patience and tenderness that foster grandparents provide is a welcome bonus for busy teachers. At SFCC, Linda Long said Cumber is “very much a part of our room. She helps with our day-to-day activities, she reads with them and plays with them and gives them love.”
The name “foster grandparents” can be a bit misleading. Kenny laughed and said, “We still get calls from folks wanting to adopt a grandparent. It doesn’t quite work that way.”
In fact, it’s more of a mutual adoption. In the preschool classroom at SFCC, a proud child held up a picture she’d just painted for JoAnn Price to inspect. “Oh, it’s very pretty,” said Price, 75. As the girl skipped off, Price said, “I couldn’t live without the kids.”
She became involved with the Foster Grandparent Program several years ago. “I’ve been busy all my life. I couldn’t just stop.” She’s taking classes at the college and expects to receive her associate degree in chemical dependency counseling in June.
Lead teacher Stephanie Zappone said, “Our children love Grandma JoAnn. They light up when she comes in. She nurtures them and loves to hear their stories.”
Many of the children don’t have a grandparent nearby and they soak up the extra attention and affection lavished on them by seniors like Price.
“They know me and come up and hug me,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m out at Walmart I hear, ‘Grandma JoAnn!’ ” She grinned and said, “It gives life to an old woman.”