Foster Grandparent program benefits seniors, students in Michiana

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Are you an adult 55+ interested in volunteering to help local students? Sign up for the REAL Services Foster Grandparent program!

By: REAL Services + Home Comfort Experts

REAL Services is known for helping older adults in the Michiana community, but one of their key programs also helps local students with their education.

It’s called the Foster Grandparent Program, which places men and women age 55 and older in local schools. The adults provide classroom assistance and one-on-one tutoring, mentoring at-risk teens, caring for infants and children with disabilities and assisting adolescents who have been neglected or even abused.

Nationally, the Foster Grandparent program has been around for more than 50 years.

Locally, REAL Services in South Bend organizes a Foster Grandparent program for Elkhart and St. Joseph County residents interested in serving today’s youth. 

“We send seniors who are 55 and older out into the community, classrooms, traditional school settings and childcare settings to work with the children who may be at risk or falling behind in their development,” said Noel Matthews, the REAL Services Foster Grandparent Program Director. “They will work on things like reading, writing, math, and socialization for some of the younger preschool kids.”

During the school year, Foster Grandparents are able to set a flexible schedule and work at least 20-hours a week. Income-eligible participants also receive a tax-free stipend that does not affect Medicaid, Social Security or subsidized housing benefits, as well as several other benefits:

  • Paid time off for holidays, sick and vacation days
  • Free daily lunch
  • Transportation provided at no cost to Foster Grandparents
  • On the job insurance
  • Opportunity to impact the community and make new friends

Through Real Services, prospective Foster Grandparents are able to work at the schools closest to their home and that is compatible with any physical limitations you may have.

“We try to match up what’s the best fit for our volunteers,” Matthews said.

Currently, REAL Services partners with 29 different schools in South Bend and Mishawaka.

Including those on medical leave and in training, there are 52 Foster Grandparents, but that’s only enough to be in and at least partially serve 19 of the 29 schools. In order to expand to the other 10 schools on the waiting list and to Elkhart, REAL Services needs more volunteers to sign up, especially men.

“We really need more men involved,” Matthews said. “I have one male Foster Grandparent out of the 52. Males are seriously needed. Don’t get me wrong, the grandmothers are very valuable, but grandfathers are also greatly needed.”

Once grandparents have signed up, they go through a four-day training process and spend four hours shadowing an experienced Foster Grandparent.

“What we go over the dos and don’ts of being a foster grandparent,” Matthews said. “We go over dealing with different behaviors that can be presented in students like working with children with autism or children with ADHD. We also look at some of the program regulations like personal leave days and how the stipend is paid, filling out timesheets and things of that nature.”

But the Foster Grandparent program doesn’t just benefit the children. It also brings value and an extra sense of purpose to the volunteers. 

There are also service meetings where volunteers gather once a month at the Charles Black Recreation Center in South Bend. At the meetings, they are served a free meal, given updates on the program and a guest speaker comes in to provide information on topics such as advice on how to do your taxes.

The Foster Grandparents also receive the benefit of serving the community, especially the children in most need of their help and guidance. 

Pamela Elkin, a Foster Grandmother at North Liberty Elementary, has volunteered with the program for five years. She says her time with the program has been a very rewarding experience that helps her financially and provided her with an opportunity to make a difference.

On a few occasions, she’s even recommended the program to others. 

“I try to talk to people and let them know that the kids appreciate having somebody in the classroom that will work with them, that will listen to them,” Elkin said. “You don’t need to be quick with these kids. If you sit there and work with the kids, work out the situation with them, work out the readings, they appreciate it very much.”

She has built bonds with her students that have lasted longer than her time in their classroom. Elkin has also been able to develop students both academically and socially, even sitting with them at lunch so that they may work on their social skills with other students.

To find out how to get involved with the Foster Grandparents program,  contact REAL Services at 574-284–7102 or 1-800-552–2916, ext. 7102 or visit the REAL Services website.

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