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A grand idea: Foster Grandparents program gives children love, attention

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"Grandma Mary” Corbitt, left, and “Grandma Lucy” Moye join South Greene Head Start students Oscar, U’shya, Liara, ZyLiyah and Trenedad, from left, in an exercise activity.

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By Brenda Monty
The Standard Laconic

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

SNOW HILL — Thousands of senior citizens across the country are spending their golden years volunteering as foster grandparents.

Foster Grandparents is a federal program, one of several senior benefit programs administered through the National Senior Service Corps.

In Snow Hill, the Foster Grandparents program has been around for decades.

There are 60 seniors in Greene and Lenoir counties volunteering in schools, daycares and other youth facilities to provide a little extra love and attention to children, especially those with special needs. They serve as tutors, mentors and friends to children, teachers and even parents.

The program was managed for more than 20 years by Caswell Development Center in Kinston. In September 2017, Greene Lamp, a nonprofit community action agency based in Kinston, took over the program.

Since 1965, Greene Lamp has administered several federal programs that provide assistance with education and employment for disadvantaged individuals. It operates Head Start, a preschool education for children for ages 4 and 5, and Early Head Start, for children ages 1 to 3 years.

Treshawna Crystal Gwendo is the Greene Lamp Foster Grandparents program director. She said the Foster Grandparents program is a good fit with Head Start, which helps children get ready for public school.

Gwendo oversees “Grandmas” and a few “Grandpas” in eight facilities. These include South Greene Head Start in Snow Hill and in Lenoir County at Head Start centers at Contentnea, La Grange, Highland and Grainger. Foster grandparents also volunteer at Contentnea Savannah, Dobbs Youth Development Center and Children’s Village Academy.

The success of the program demonstrates that everybody benefits when grandparents are in the classroom, she said, even if they are not biological family.

There are three South Greene Head Start classes on the campus of Lenoir Community College Workforce Development Center on Harper Street.

To become a Foster Grandparent, one must meet income eligibility requirements, be age 55 or older and agree to volunteer at least 20 hours a week.

Participants receive 20 hours of initial training, followed by four hours a month of continuing education. The training consists of learning how to de-escalate situations in the classroom and how to assist the teaching in educating their students.

Volunteers are provided a nominal stipend of $2.65 an hour and mileage reimbursement.

“Even though some grandparents join the program to possibly offset their income, the good that they give to the community and these children is invaluable. They go above and beyond,” Gwendo said.

Lucy Moye, 74, of Snow Hill volunteers 25 hours a week at South Greene Head Start. She is assigned to the classroom of lead teacher Sharkeeya Bryant and her assistant Shirley Hall.

Moye has been in the Foster Grandparents program for 18 years. She retired in 2004 from Mohawk Karastan Carpet in Greenville.

Mary Corbitt, 72, of Snow Hill is also a “grandma” in Bryant’s class.

“I love having them in the classroom. They are a big help,” Bryant said.

Moye was named Greene Lamp’s Foster Grandparent of the Month for December.

“Grandma Lucy is the go-to grandma. She is the one they run to when they’re in trouble,” Gwendo said.

Moye is able to calmly console a child with a warm, reassuring hug and a patient conversation about their behavior and how to make better choices.

“Some of the kids don’t get the attention and training at home the way they should. They don’t have anyone to tell them right from wrong,” Moye said. “A lot of them appear to be on their own with nobody taking time to give them love.”

Gwendo said that older adults — by virtue of their age and experience — bring to the classroom stability, wisdom and moral values they learned as a child.

“A lot of kids don’t have someone at home to say, ‘I care about you. This is the right way,’” Gwendo said. “These children come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The foster grandparents fill the gap of what they at times are missing at home.”

Teachers also benefit from the older generation’s experience.

“They bring a level of patience and calmness to the classroom. They are grandmas to everyone,” Gwendo said.

When a teacher becomes downhearted after a rough day, a grandma’s motherly advice can be reassuring, Bryant said.

“Grandmas are a big help. They are an asset to the Head Start program,” Hall said. “They interact with the kids and help them with their writing, their ABCs, colors and shapes — basically, whatever we do, they do.”

They are extra hands, ears and eyes in the classroom, which every teacher welcomes.

Grandmas in the classroom also provide children with a sense of an extended family. The children know these seasoned adults are not their teachers; they are their grandmas who take up extra time with them, teach them, give them hugs and welcome them onto their laps to read books.

“It’s good that you can be there, talk to them and give them love and encourage them. Some are hard to reach,” Moye said.

“They build a relationship with their grandma, even if they don’t have a grandma at home or they don’t get to see their real grandma very often,” Hall said. “They know they can come to school and still have a grandma. It gives children another aspect of family.”

This type of volunteering also benefits the seniors.

“It gives you something to do instead of just sitting in the house. I come out here every day and I enjoy it,” Corbitt said.

Veronica Gilchrist, 57, of La Grange is a former truck driver and Lenoir Memorial Hospital nurse. She has been a foster grandparent for three years and volunteers 36 hours a week in the class of Charlotte Rouse of Scuffleton and her assistant Susie Avery of Snow Hill.

“After I retired, I didn’t want to stay home. I love being around the kids,” Gilchrist said. “It makes you happy and gives you something to do every day, something to look forward to.”

Grandma Betty Kittrell, 67, of La Grange also is in Rouse’s class. She retired from Lennox China in Kinston and has 10 grandchildren of her own. She volunteers 40 hours a week.

“Working with kids is fun. It makes me feel like I have something to do besides sit around and worry about myself,” Kittrell said.

“We get hugs every day,” Gilchrist said. “If a child has a problem, they will come to one of us and talk. They love us. When one of us is out sick, they are so excited to see us when we come back.”

This year is Rouse’s first experience with grandmas in the classroom.

“I love it. We have great grandmothers,” Rouse said. “The things they do gives us more time to do other things with the kids. The kids recognize the grandma’s role because we teachers acknowledge them as Grandma Betty and Grandma Veronica. What the children see is a grandmother versus a teacher.”

Kittrell and Gilchrist are typical grandmothers in the sense that when they see a need, whether it is academic, emotional or material, they try their best to fill it. They might purchase backpacks, a coat or just decorative Christmas hats to wear when they go caroling at the local nursing home.

“Some children don’t get enough love. You have to put your arms around them and make them feel they are loved and wanted,” Kittrell said.

Gilchrist added, “They think of us as their real grandparents. I think it makes the parents feel good too, knowing they are in good hands.”

Gwendo is a retired Air Force veteran, an active community volunteer and mother of a fourth grader. She loves working with the Foster Grandparents program.

“I have an opportunity to do something I love, going into the community and being on the front line of making changes,” she said. “You see the growth and development in these children at the end of the year and you know the grandmas had something to do with that.”

Kittrell said, “Other counties ought to have a Foster Grandparents program. There are a lot of older ones out there that would love to do this.”

Gwendo hopes so, especially in Greene County. They are looking for more volunteers for Head Start and hope to soon bring the program to West Greene Elementary.

For more information, call Gwendo at 523-7770 or email tgwendo@greenelamp.org.