The Foster Grandparents Program in the United States had its origin in the 1964 federal War on Poverty legislation. The program aims to give seniors across the country a purpose in retirement by providing some of the neediest children with mentors and giving assistance to teachers in the classroom. The grandparents select their hours and most work 15 to 30 per week. This unique program has connected tens of thousands of needy children and compassionate retired adults who have all been greatly enriched by their time spent together. Directors of the program say it’s a “win-win-win” for senior volunteers, children and communities. According to Gehr-Deckert who runs the program in eight counties, “Volunteers really enjoy helping out in the community, and some say it’s a reason to get up in the morning. When students do better in school, the community benefits.” Many educators believe that having an intergenerational volunteer in the classroom upgrades the environment and offers the students increased opportunities for one-on-one learning. Program manager Karen Betley agrees. “If you can turn around one child, that is a huge difference to the community.” At the same time, the Foster Grandparents Program provides a dual benefit to two of the most vulnerable populations: senior adults and children. The intergenerational dynamics that take place during this relationship are extraordinary. Gehr-Deckert echoes those sentiments. “Despite having been around for the past 50 years nationwide,” she said, “the Foster Grandparents Program is a hidden gem.”
The Foster Grandparent volunteers work a minimum of 15 hours a week in community settings such as schools, daycares, Head Starts, youth centres or any other non-profit organization that provides services to children. Volunteers must be 55 and older with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty line. Vetting is very strict for those who wish to work in the program and every volunteer undergoes three rigorous background checks. Volunteers are expected to attend monthly workshops where topics related to either child development or senior health care are discussed. The subject matter may include early literacy, educational support techniques, social issues impacting on families and children, dealing with stress and making use of community support systems. Every few months, program coordinators meet with the Foster Grandparents to provide supervision and answer any questions or concerns the volunteers may have about the children. Foster Grandparents work regular, steady hours at the same location and they become valued members of a team. Their dependability affords them the opportunity to have a substantial impact on the children and young adults they serve resulting in concrete gains toward emotional development and academic performance. The federal program pays a tax-free stipend of $2.65 an hour to Foster Grandparents which provides extra spending money but isn’t enough to threaten any government benefits they rely on. Quite soon, they are able to afford their medications and can purchase fresh fruit and vegetables for daily use. In addition, volunteers receive mileage reimbursements for their travel to and from their volunteer site, meal reimbursements, paid time off, and annual recognition events. The government’s small stipend also helps to give seniors the opportunity to be Foster Grandparents. Low-income volunteers are typically underrepresented among volunteers in America. The program requires volunteers to have an annual physical exam and the costs are covered for those who can’t afford it. Often, the physicals discover ailments that would have otherwise gone undetected. Foster Grandparents often report a reduction in depression and loneliness because they feel a sense of connectedness with the children they help and a renewed sense of purpose in their lives. Research studies show that older adults who volunteer are less likely to have high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. They face a lower risk of cognitive impairment, as well.
In schools, Foster Grandparents offer one-on-one attention to help students fulfill their academic goals. They help children with their reading skills, practice math problems, give special attention to neglected or abused children, assist children with learning disabilities, keep struggling children focussed on the task at hand, and provide academic and emotional support to students and encourage their productive behaviours. Foster Grandparents serve as positive role models and are available to provide additional support to students that classroom teachers may not have the time for. In child care centres, Foster Grandparents bestow caring attention on babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, helping them with the tools of early learning. Foster Grandparents help children to develop competency in early literacy, cognitive and language development and social skills. To this end, Foster Grandparents take part in positive play, reading, patterning, and care giving.
Within the Metro Vancouver area of British Columbia, the non-profit organization Volunteer Grandparents has been a leader and advocate of intergenerational bonds among youth and seniors. For over 40 years, Volunteer Grandparents has created programs linking low-income, underprivileged children without the immediate presence of grandparents with local senior volunteers. Many children do not have contact with their natural grandparents or older family members due to increased movement, global migration and family breakdown. These circumstances have caused increasing community disconnect, and often leave children without any positive relationships with older adults. Intergenerational connections have been shown to help children handle the challenges of school, peer group inclusion and negative external pressure. Intergenerational connections can be equally advantageous to older adults. Canadians over 50 represent a population with enormous potential to make helpful contributions as volunteers. Many older adults claim to enjoy interacting with children and say they feel less anxious and lonely, more healthy and connected when doing so. As seniors make the transition from the workplace to retirement, volunteering can furnish opportunities for sharing a host of skills, experience and knowledge.
In 2019, the Canada Without Poverty website tells us that nearly five million people in Canada — that’s one out of every seven individuals — currently live in poverty. Poverty is a widespread issue across the country, but vulnerable groups such as people living with disabilities, single parents, elderly individuals, youth, and racialized communities are more susceptible. The effects of poverty can be expressed in different aspects of a person’s life, including food, security, health, education and housing. With this in mind, the American model for the Foster Grandparents Program makes good sense as an initiative which actually helps people to thrive and create better lives for themselves. Low income seniors are paid a federal stipend for their services and this small amount of money allows them to become volunteers in the first place and engage with disadvantaged children who require extra assistance to develop and accomplish tasks at school. The seniors themselves benefit from such a program because they become valued members of the society and offer concrete services to children which has demonstrated a clear benefit. Shenora Plenty, principal of Wheatley Education Campus, Washington, D.C., claims the five Foster Grandparents at her school are critical to its success. In the last batch of standardized tests that students took, Wheatley posted gains and principal Plenty said the Grandparents played a role. Program director Cheryl Christmas has this to say about the Foster Grandparents, “We’re wrapping our arms around them. It’s an outgrowth of how we used to treat teachers — like preachers.” “They are outstanding volunteers,” claims a school administrator, “whose contributions to teachers, staff and children are immeasurable.”