Susan Smith’s first grade classroom at Cedaredge Elementary School is a pretty typical one.
Brightly colored pictures adorn the walls, the ABCs march across the top of the blackboard, stacks of books are piled on shelves and lots of tiny little bodies scramble around between small desks and even smaller chairs. But in the back of Mrs. Smith’s classroom is something a little extra special: Grandma B.
Sporting a cheerful smile and the patience of any great teacher, Grandma B. instructs her kids in reading, helping them when they stumble over hard words, and encouraging good behavior with a smile and a pat on the back.
Grandma B. is really Iona Bartosiewicz, one of a handful of people working with the Foster Grandparent program in Delta County. This is her first year volunteering with the program, which matches seniors to kids in an educational setting in a double-whammy of goodwill. Program coordinator Barbara Hall said the program “enriches the lives of seniors while improving the lives of children.”
Foster Grandparents is a national senior employment program sponsored locally by St. Mary’s Hospital. Hall is in charge of the program in Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties. The program has been active in Delta County for 17 years. Of the 60 volunteers in the three-county area, six work in Delta County.
The program allows seniors to get out and about and back to work on a part-time basis and provides a few extra dollars every month in the form of a stipend. The program also helps overworked teachers by providing extra help in the classroom. And for young kids in a setting that at times can be overwhelming, foster grandparents offer a kind face and words of comfort, just like the real thing.
“It’s heartwarming the way they welcome you into the room every morning,” Bartosiewicz said of her students. In addition to the three different groups she reads with each day in Mrs. Smith’s class, she works one-on-one with students in whatever areas they need help with, as well as assisting Mrs. Waehner’s first grade class, too. For some of her kindergartners, that’s help in memorizing the ABC’s and numbers or learning new words. For some of the first graders, she helps with reading, math, spelling words and handwriting skills. She also works in the library, helping students check out books.
“I like it very much,” she said. “The children are like a breath of fresh air.” She said her work is challenging; she helps so many kids, all with their own distinct personalities, abilities and learning styles. “She’s been a wonderful asset to my class,” Smith said, adding that her students’ reading levels have grown since Grandma B. came. “It’s been wonderful for both the kids and me.”
Bartosiewicz plans on returning to the classroom next school year.
Another new grandma to the program is Christene Ingram, who lives in Delta and works with infants with the Delta Backpack program. Each day, Ingram has every grandma’s dream job. She plays with infants and toddlers, reads to them and rocks them to sleep, and she gets paid for it. While their mothers are taking GED or English classes, Ingram and others have the job of caring for the children.
A big part of her job as a foster grandmother is encouraging literacy, so she reads a lot of books to curious babies and toddlers, and talks to them so they can start to form words and sentences.
“It’s so neat!” she said of her job. “It’s wonderful.” Many of the children she works with come from Spanish-speaking homes, and Ingram said she feels like all the hard work has paid off when she hears a child say “book” or “hello” in English.
She’s also seen some major progress in her babies. When she first started, some of the babies were practically newborns; she’s seen them roll over, sit up, pull themselves up and begin to take those first teetering steps.
“I like it so much. I’ve made lots of little friends,” she said.
She works about 15 hours a week with the Backpack Program. Though the school year just ended, she plans on returning next year, too.
Della Rubalcaba, another foster grandma, works with toddlers in a Delta Head Start classroom. She was the very first foster grandparent to work in Delta County, and she’s been affiliated with the program since 1994.
Over the years, she’s worked at Garnet Mesa Elementary School, Olathe Middle School and a daycare facility and a Head Start school in Olathe. At times she’s chosen where to go, and at other times, she’s been placed at schools where extra help is needed.
Her work at the Delta Head Start entails reading to kids, playing games and helping with arts and craft projects.
“I enjoy it,” she said. “I love children. I’ve been with children all my life.” The money she earns is just a small part of why she works with the Foster Grandparent program. She said it’s enough money to keep her comfortable, and, “It’s worth it, I think.”
Some children she used to work with in her early days of being a foster grandma are now grown up, but when they see her around town, they still greet her with hugs and exclamations of “Grandma!”
“It’s been a wonderful program,” she said.
Barbara Hall encourages anyone who is interested in learning more about the program or volunteering to give her a call at 263-9091.
There are openings for foster grandparents in Delta County and in Olathe, and there is a special need for foster grandfathers.
Foster grandfathers can relate differently to children, especially boys, Hall said. Foster grandparents in the classroom also act as a child’s closest link to real grandparents in a day and age of mobile families, she said.
The program offers paid time off, sick time and monthly training. There is no age limit on who can volunteer, though you must be at least 60.
Physical disabilities shouldn’t hinder a senior from volunteering either; currently, Hall has grandparents who are in wheelchairs, some who are on dialysis and some who are blind.
“Anybody who wants to get out and work with kids is welcome,” Hall said.