Kids need grandparents. Retirees need something to do with their days. And to be honest, teachers could use a little help in the classroom. Catholic Charities addresses all these needs with their Foster Grandparent program.
Through this longstanding program, volunteers work in the classrooms, not as teachers or aides, but as, well, grandparents. They observe the children, the way a loved one does, to see if everything is OK, offer support and even tie shoes as needed.
"I also observe a lot of the kids that sometimes come sad from homes," said Ruth Quinones, known as Grandma Cookie. "I like to catch them in the hallway and say something positive that will change the beginning of their day."
The volunteers are assigned to work one on one with up to three children who have developmental, behavioral or home needs. Some children are assigned based upon low attendance rates. The volunteers are there for all the children in class when a need arises. The foster grandparents do not babysit or chauffer the children, they only help in the school.
The program engages seniors over the age of 55, with low incomes to volunteer with children in the Buffalo School District to support the academic needs. Volunteers receive a stipend of $2.65 an hour and it keeps them engaged in community, active and close to their peers. Seventy-four percent of students who work with a foster grandparent show an academic improvement, and 72 percent show an improvement in their social and emotional skills according to Catholic Charities.
Quinones speaks Spanish and spends her days in a bilingual second-grade classroom, interpreting for children who come from Puerto Rico who do not speak English.
"I help them make the transition. Let them know the difference of how it is done in Puerto Rico and how it's done here, so they won't be lost. I help them with the schoolwork. I read to them. I give the support that grandmother's give to their grandchildren," she explained.
"It can be rough when a child comes in and doesn't speak the language, doesn't know the culture, and is thrown into a classroom. So, the volunteer will work with them to bring them up to speed," explained Erin R. Pustulka, Catholic Charities program coordinator.
Buffalo public schools have over 84 different languages being spoken in the classrooms and hallways. The teachers are mostly white English-speakers who miss some of the cultural nuances that the students bring. When one student wanted to perform a rap for his class, the teacher didn't see any harm in it, but Grandma Bonnie Miller found one word that had a double meaning that when mixed with a certain dance move would not be appropriate for her class at Dr. Martin Luther King School #48.
"I love being there with the kids, helping them out," said Miller. "They need a lot of help in math. I sit there with them one on one and we do math. Some of them, maybe they don't like to sit still, so I encourage them to sit still. I say, 'This is how Grandma Bonnie sits. This is how you should sit.' It's very rewarding just to see their smiling faces."
Susette Mines has been a mental health advocate for years. She has a daughter of her own with special needs, and now identifies the needs of students in her classroom and helps those kids succeed in school. She knows one little boy who has an attention deficit.
"He doesn't have it two seconds and you lost him. So, what I did, I gradually worked with him. He started trusting me. We try to make them independent, where they can handle their own behaviors and deescalate themselves," she explained.
She designed three calming corners in her classroom. Students can sit with the class or, if they feel disruptive, can sit in a calming corner. Sometimes this kid will sit with Grandma Mines who will mimic the teacher and give him his lesson.
Usually, the volunteer grandparents work with one teacher for a number of years, so they develop a rapport over the years. Mines has worked in a number of classrooms up in all grades.
"Every teacher that she's worked with has had nothing but praise because she can adapt," said Pustulka. "She can adapt to the situation, to the way the room is flowing, the children who are there, the child she is assigned to. She just finds a way to mold herself into the classroom and to do that in multiple different classrooms over the course of the years is a really unique talent."
The Foster Grandparent Program has been in Buffalo for 85 years, and part of Catholic Charities Department of Older Adult Services for 35. They currently have 76 volunteers, but hope to expand into the suburbs. Volunteers receive a small stipend, as well as food and transportation expenses. The stipend does not count as income, so it will not affect any other services the grandparent may receive, such as public housing, DSS, SNAP, Social Security. Volunteers need to be 55 years of age or older and make less than $25,000 annual income. Being an actual grandparent is not a prerequisite. Catholic Charites provides monthly trainings and Protecting God's Children updates. Volunteers can work between 5-40 hours a week.
"You're making a difference in a young kid's life. I'm with kindergarteners. You can really teach them something, and they can carry it all the way through life," said Mines.