Foster Grandparents

by Kim Briggeman

Stories are the most important story of the Foster Grandparent program, in Montana and elsewhere.

There are thousands to tell from the 50 years since Sargent Shriver developed the federal program as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Sometime in the early 1970s, women and a few men of retirement age and limited income started receiving small stipends to help teach reading and math in schools all across the state. Their job, as a current executive of the program puts it, was “to provide the kind of unconditional love that sets a child on a path to a secure future.”

For a dozen years Flossie Jacobson drove a distinctive 1956 Rambler to the work she loved at Franklin School in Missoula. Judy Edwards recalled the winter day in the 1980s that was so cold Missoula’s District 1 called off school. Edwards was the first-grade teacher at Franklin, and said she went to school, albeit a bit late.

Jonna Rhein, a foster grandparent at Paxson School

Jonna Rhein, a foster grandparent at Paxson School

“Flossie’s pink Rambler was there, and when I went inside, she had hot chocolate ready for all the kids who would come to school anyway,” said Edwards, who retired in 2000 after 30 years as a teacher and principal in the Missoula district.

Jacobson turned 90 on the job in 1987, and Franklin primary-grade students who are now in their 30s
surrounded her at the party.

“Happy birthday,” one little girl whispered in her ear.

“I love you, Grandma Flossie.”

Dot Baker discovered Foster Grandparents at a trying time. She’d just become a widow.

“Every morning my husband would come into the kitchen and say, ‘Good morning, honey.’ I think I
sometimes miss that good morning most of all,” Baker told the Golden Star News in 1990. “Now it’s the
children who say, ‘Good morning,’ and give me so many hugs. I’ve never had so many hugs in my whole life. The hugs can’t be measured by money.”

Dorothy Appelman had a stroke and couldn’t speak for more than a year. But the beloved foster
grandmother was beckoned back to Willard School, where she had found a home.

It was at a time in the early ‘80s when Hmong children from families displaced in Laos were filtering
into the Missoula school system.

“It was maybe the first time in a long time the schools were struggling with non-English students,”
said Colleen Baldwin, who as director of Senior Corps at Missoula Aging Services oversees the Foster
Grandparent program, Senior Companion and RSVP.

“She came back and worked with the children who could not speak English. She said being with those
young people was delightful,” Baldwin said. “She didn’t know what they were saying, they didn’t know what she was saying, and it made them feel equal. It’s one of the most touching stories I’ve ever, ever heard.”

The essence of the Foster Grandparent program hasn’t changed much in 50 years. Minimum age was 60, but is now 55. Grandparents go into a classroom or sometimes a hallway to work individually or in small groups for four hours a day with vulnerable students who need individual attention that teachers don’t have time to give.

They generally come out, as a current foster grandparent says, feeling like super heroes to a much
larger segment of the school population. Baldwin said the one part of her job she regrets is telling a foster grandparent she or he has to give it up.

In the beginning, grandparents received stipends equal to minimum wage, which was something south of $2 an hour. Fifty years later it’s all the way up to $2.65. “Let’s just say it hasn’t kept pace with inflation,” Baldwin said.

The monthly pay of $225 sounds more digestible to would-be grandparents, most of whom can put it to
good use for rent, gas and food.

“You have to have the capacity to get out of the house, so the stipend is designed to reimburse them for what the cost of volunteering might be in their budgets,” Baldwin said.

“We’re not in it for the money,” said Nancy Elkins, a veteran foster grandmother at Hellgate Elementary
School. “But it’s good for transportation.”

American taxpayers pay for most of the program through the Corporation for National and Community Service, or CNCS. Local programs pick up the rest.

Foster grandparent Jane Butler works with a group of second graders at Sussex School recently.

Foster grandparent Jane Butler works with a group of second graders at Sussex School recently.

In Montana, four other Foster Grandparent programs are administered by Senior Corps directors based in
Billings, Great Falls, Helena and Polson. Micky Snyder recently took over the latter, which is run through the Western Montana Area VI Agency on Aging and covers the six westernmost counties in the state, other than Missoula, as well as the Flathead Reservation.

According to Baldwin, Missoula receives money from grants and local sources, including the United Way, the schools and local government.

The program has placed 42 grandparents in eight Missoula County Public Schools elementary schools as
well as in Bonner, Frenchtown, Hellgate Elementary, Lolo, Potomac, Seeley Lake, St. Joseph and Target
Range schools; Head Start and Early Head Start; Missoula Community School, and Spirit at Play
preschool on Stephens Avenue.

Federal investment for the 2015-16 school year in Missoula is $126,438. It’s supplemented by more than
$96,000 in local grants, cash and in-kind donations.

Still, Foster Grandparent and other CNCS programs are again under the gun in Congress. Baldwin said
sequestration hit AmeriCorps hardest, but the cuts inevitably seep over to other programs.

“One might say that congressmen can still say they’re supporting seniors while at the same time gutting the program, and ththey can feel quite good about that,” Baldwin said.

Grandparents didn’t fare well in the years after World War II. The nation was in motion. “Our society changed and when the family – mom, dad and children – started to move and go where the jobs were, they left behind the grandparents,” Baldwin said.

No longer could they play with grandchildren or move in with their kids.

A federal study found “not only were our seniors so poorly socialized that depression was rampant, they
were malnourished,” Baldwin said. “There was not enough food to feed them, they were stuck at home if
they were lucky enough to have homes.”

Congress sought to help in the 1960s, she said. America’s elders have maturity, experience and time,
and many would welcome a chance to work with children, the reasoning went.

“And the second thought was, these people are so extraordinarily low income, let’s give them a stipend
in return for their service,” Baldwin said.

Shriver was a political administrator and diplomat who founded and directed the U.S. Peace Corps during the presidential administration of his brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy. Later he was special assistant to Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson. It was in that role that Shriver led the War on Poverty,and Foster Grandparents.

Over the years clippings and photos pertaining to the Missoula Foster Grandparents program have been compiled in a scrapbook. Most news accounts date the start of the local program to 1972.

The earliest clipping, from June 17, 1974, reported on a dinner at the Holiday Inn that honored 10
retired senior volunteers who had served as foster grandparents in six Missoula schools.

They were Marie Howard and Willard Nichols at Central School; Violet Porter, Mabel Teskey and Francis Moore at C.S. Porter; Ada Ferguson at Lewis and Clark; Grace Eichart and Peggy Sherman at Lowell; Clara Hiday at Whittier; and Anna Hamilton at Willard.

The program has had its low points during the past 40 years. There was an uproar in 1977 when the
state office administering the federal funds fired 20 foster grandparents in Missoula and 35 elsewhere
for falling outside the federal income guidelines. But, oh, the highs.

“One of the teachers tells us what the grandparents give to the children is time,” Baldwin said. “The time to catch up with the class, the time to learn to read … They teach time because nobody else does.
“You get a hug from Grandma. You get the time to sit and actually work with one person who’s paying
attention to you.”

“And the grandma gets that time too,” said Elkins, who worked at the YMCA Early Learning Center and
at Lowell before moving to Hellgate Elementary.

Her own grandchildren live out of state, she said, and that’s not uncommon.

“So that’s a huge thing for me,” she said. “It gives me something back I can’t get otherwise.”

Elkins was sitting outside at her home visiting one day when the voice of a 6-year-old child came
through her slatted board fence.

“Grandma Nancy?” it said.

She looked around in puzzlement. “Noah, is that you?” Elkins said.

“It is. Are you my neighbor?”

“Just like Mr. Rogers,” she replied.

Noah has moved on to second grade, but every now and then Elkins will hear a knock-knock-knock on her fence.

“Hello, Noah. Is that you?”

“Yes, it is, Grandma,” the boy will reply. “Are you having a good day?”

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