Carol Christopoulos has been a foster grandparent for third graders at Farwell School in Lewiston for the past eight years. That’s after being a teacher for 26 years, retiring, and then taking care of her grandchildren.
I had met this young woman who was a student teacher and we really bonded. When she got her first position, she called and said, would you like to be a grammy in my classroom? I said, well, I’m not ready just yet but I’ll call you when I am.Carol Christopoulos, Foster Grandparent
Soon after, Carol contacted Penquis, a Bangor community action agency that oversees the Foster Grandparent Program in her area. Maria Staples is the program director.
Through our programs, Penquis impacts all of Maine, but typically, we only cover Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Knox County. The Foster Grandparent Program covers 14 counties in Maine, everything but York and Cumberland. I also have the town of Brunswick, which is in Cumberland County.Maria Staples, Director, Penquis Foster Grandparents Program
The Foster Grandparent Program, which began in 1966, is part of AmeriCorps Seniors and funded by AmeriCorps. Income-eligible individuals, aged 55 and over, volunteer 15 to 40 hours a week in schools, child care and Head Start centers. Maria says the volunteers act as mentors and tutors for children of all ages.
They review schoolwork, reinforce values, and teach skills. They are role models, mentors, and friends to the children. The program provides a way for the volunteers to stay active by serving the children and their communities. They all have to pass rigorous background checks and go through training. In addition to what they’re doing to help the children, their benefits include a taxable stipend, mileage, and paid time off.Maria Staples
It’s the benefit of being with children that stood out for Carol.
I was really ready to be with children again, I missed them terribly, and this young teacher is like a grandchild to me. My job is to be there with the children and to love them. I’d read to them and help them with anything they needed help with. If they were having a bad day, we’d go for a walk. They ate with me, they played with me, we had absolutely wonderful times.Carol
That was before COVID. When the pandemic hit and school closed Carol didn’t skip a beat. She started recording stories for the kids on Zoom. When we spoke, they had just moved to a hybrid schedule, and she was back — in her own little corner of the classroom, protected by a plexiglass shield.
My school was great about getting things ready for me, so I felt like they really wanted me back. Being a foster grandparent helps me as well as the children. I know my health would not be what it is. When my husband was alive, he always kept me on track, and now it’s the kids.Carol
Maria says that, in general, the Foster Grandparent Program was rolling along quite nicely until March 13, 2020, when Maine got its first presumptive COVID case and all volunteers were advised to stay home. Soon after, the governor issued a stay-at-home order. The volunteers continued to get their stipends and eventually got the go-ahead to engage in some new activities.
Typically, they’re all in a classroom face to face with children, and always supervised. But now they can do things such as such as being a pen pal or participating in a Zoom class with the teacher and students. They’re preparing learning packets, and some of them are serving as a school greeter when the children get off the bus. That’s just an idea of how we’ve done during the pandemic, but it’s been tough on them.Maria Staples
That’s for sure. Dot Roach, a Foster Grandparent at Penquis Head Start in East Millinocket recalled her first day in the classroom. She wasn’t sure if it was what she wanted to do and she also felt a bit standoffish. Then she met the kids.
I went to the first class and about four of the kids came right up and gave me a hug. That was 11 years ago. We do not do any discipline or try to stop a child from doing something, that’s all the teacher’s responsibility. We’re just there to be a grammy. I’d come home from school singing, and my husband would say I take it you had a good day? I don’t understand why I even had to think so much about doing it.Dot Roach, Foster Grandparent
The pandemic has kept Dot out of school for much of the past year, but she started writing letters to the class and reading parts of them aloud on Zoom.
And I’d talk about things that I did as a child. I’d say I have one older brother and two younger sisters, do you have a brother or sister? They would all talk, but you’re talking to at the most only four children on Zoom. There are so many that don’t have that opportunity, so you don’t see the whole class at all.Dot
At the beginning of the year, she was able to spend a half an hour at the playground first thing in the morning and during recess. Masked and at a distance.
As soon as the kids saw me come around the corner of the building, they’d all right be there at the gate waiting for me to open it up. That was really nice. I don’t know how anybody could not do this. It does so much for me. It keeps me alive. It really does. When my husband passed away, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back, but I did. I think I would have regretted it if I hadn’t.Dot
Ann Cookson, who raised four children, has 11 grandchildren, and is a published author, is in her second year as a foster grandparent at Kate Furbish School in Brunswick. What she likes to share with the children most is her love of writing, and she would often read to them. But largely due to COVID, her time in the classroom lasted only three months, so now she creates video book read-alongs.
I choose a story, one with kind of a theme to it, and maybe delivers a message of social awareness or awareness in some way. l photograph all of the images and sometimes I have to retype the content and then I save it in a video format. And I record my voice as I read along, page by page.Ann Cookson, Foster Grandparent
She has no idea when she’ll be able to go back into the classroom, but sits in on Zoom classes and says the teacher is going to set up some one-on-one opportunities so she can begin engaging more with the students.
Twenty-three years. That’s how long Juanita Davis has been a foster grandparent. Her classroom is at Elm Street School in East Machias. In 2019, she had two strokes, but fortunately, neither left her with any after effects and they also didn’t slow her down any.
In the classroom, Juanita does whatever is needed and pre-COVID, was also working with a teacher one-on-one with about a half dozen children.
I just enjoyed that so much. Those children, honestly. I keep notes, I’m a great one for keeping notes, and one day, a little boy said to me when I grow up. I want to be as smart as you. You know how to do everything. I said, well, you’re quite smart because you do a lot of things. He perked right up and then said I can tell that you’re old, you know how I can tell? I said no and he said by the cracks on your face. You never know what they’re going to say!Juanita Davis, Foster Grandparent
Juanita’s school shut down because of COVID, but she was still able to help the teachers sort the papers they were preparing for students. She also helped in the kitchen.
When there wasn’t any school, the school provided school lunches for the children just the same. They had a man who delivered them to the homes, so I went over and made sandwiches and packed them and helped like that.Juanita
Juanita isn’t online, so hasn’t been able to connect with any of the students that way, but in addition to helping their teachers, she finds other things to do for them. She’s been making them little stuffed mice, and she also makes little tooth pockets for first graders. Inside the pocket is a handwritten poem about the tooth fairy. She’s been writing poems and short stories most of her life.
Juanita is an inspiration, but so are all of the Penquis Foster Grandparents. In the last fiscal year, which ended in June 2020, the program had 70 Foster Grandparents who served at 66 sites. Together, they contributed more than 60,746 hours of service and supported the individual needs of 227 children.
It’s a win-win-win situation — for the children, the volunteers, and the teachers.
The teachers are so pressed, it is terrible, and they appreciate us so much. I cannot imagine having a job anywhere other than being with a child that could bring more laughter and appreciation. It’s amazing.Juanita
Information about Foster Grandparents and other resources
- Penquis Foster Grandparent Program. You can also call 1-800-215-4942 or send an email to Maria Staples.
- There is a Foster Grandparent Program in Maine’s York and Cumberland Counties. For more information, contact The Opportunity Alliance in Portland.
- AmeriCorps Seniors
- Volunteer Maine