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Closing generation gap with hugs and support

THE BALTIMORE SUN

June Boyer allowed herself only a short recuperation after knee surgery in December.

The 74-year-old Annapolis resident was in a hurry to get back to her job at the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services Family Support Center, where she has been a member of the foster grandparents program for nearly nine years.

Boyer, who works there four days a week, enjoys her time with the children so much that, she said, "I'll be in the program until they kick me out."

Whether they are great-grandparents or have never had children, the county's "foster grandparents" have one thing in common: their love of children.

About 60 men and women participate in the county's program, providing encouragement to students at schools and family centers, and offering much-needed assistance to teachers and young parents. The program is managed by the county Department of Aging and is separate from social services programs that place children in temporary foster homes.

Boyer, who has no children, works with 4- and 5-year-olds who call her "Grandma." Her boss, family support center education coordinator Jane La Brie, says she enjoys Boyer's cheerful personality. La Brie says she can't imagine a day at the center without the reliable support of her foster grandparents, three at the Annapolis center and two at the family center in Glen Burnie.

"The foster grandparents are such a huge asset," said La Brie, 47, a former teacher at Chesapeake Community College, who plans academic courses for teenagers and adults at the center.

The foster grandparents at the center help care for the toddlers who come with their teenage mothers to attend the Teen Parent Alternative, a program in which young mothers earn credits toward a high school diploma. Along with their academic pursuits, the moms learn strategies for successful job performance, personal health care and child rearing. "We even have them certified in infant and child CPR," said La Brie.

Without the child care provided by the foster grandparents, many of these young women would be unable to continue with their education, says La Brie.

"One thing that I really love about this program," said its director, La Tonya Walker, "is that it provides the foster grandparents the opportunities to put their life experiences to work for their communities."

Walker says the program is designed for those age 60 or older who are in good mental and physical health and are able to work 15 to 20 hours a week.

Foster grandparents receive training before working throughout the county at family support centers, Head Start programs, and special education and shelter sites.

To be a foster grandparent, a person must have an annual income of no more than $12,920, or $17,325 for a two-person household, says Walker, 29, who earned a bachelor's degree in recreation leadership with an emphasis on therapeutic recreation at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

Foster grandparents meeting the income guidelines receive a tax-free stipend of $2.95 an hour, along with free lunch, transportation or mileage reimbursement to and from the site, sick leave and annual leave. There are a few slots for nonstipend volunteers whose incomes do not meet the program requirements.

Although some assignments are more demanding - such as assisting a wheelchair-bound child who has a feeding tube - most of the jobs are universal grandparent pastimes: rocking infants, reading stories, working puzzles, and helping children learn to set the table, feed themselves and identify colors, numbers and the alphabet.

A resident of Glen Burnie for 70 years, Odessa Fleming is a nonstipend foster grandmother who has worked for about five years in the special education class for sixth-graders at Brooklyn Park Middle School.

"If you were in the classroom, you wouldn't think they're special ed students," said Fleming, 76, a retired beautician at Crownsville State Hospital. "They're very brilliant sixth-graders; they're precious. We hope that we help them do better in the community and be a help to themselves and their family.

"We all have different abilities and talents," said Fleming, who has one great-grandchild of her own. "I hope what I do will make a difference."

Janice Jennings, a sixth-grade special education teacher at Brooklyn Park, said: "I don't think there are enough words to describe how much help my foster grandparents are."

"Because of the foster grandparents, my students are working on the same curriculum as the general education students," said Jennings. "We have noticed that the special education students who move on to general education classes do it because they get the necessary self-esteem from the foster grandparents.

"The students get more one-on-one," she said. "Sometimes I'll ask a student if he needs help and he'll say, 'Oh, that's all right. Grandma will help me.'"

Henry Smith of Brooklyn has five children, 12 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren of his own. The 67-year-old retired steelworker and cab driver also has been a foster granddad at Patapsco Elementary School in Baltimore for nearly a year. He works in the school office, recording the arrival of visitors and students.

"I can identify with the children," he said.

"No matter how they behave, "if you live long enough, you know how to deal with them," said Smith. "Those children need respect. Just show 'em some love."

The children returned that respect to Smith on a recent weekday, with several calling, "Hi, Granddad," from the hallway.

Marie Wallis, 84, who has worked for 18 years at the Ruth Parker Eason Special Education School in Millersville, has no children or grandchildren of her own. But five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., she's grandma to eight disabled children who beam at the sight of her face and reach for her hand.

The feeling is mutual. "I don't like to take my days off," she said. "When the ones who can speak say, 'Hi, Grandmom,' that makes my day.

"I love every minute," Wallis added. "If I got no money, I wouldn't care."

Gladys Cook, 81, of St. Margaret's has five great-grandchildren. A retired nurse who worked at Crownsville State Hospital, she has been a foster grandparent for 24 years at Annapolis Garden Head Start, which prepares children for kindergarten. "This is the first time many of the children in my class have left their mothers," said Cook. "We help them get used to coming to school everyday."

For people who have reached their 55th birthday and do not fit the income requirements for the Foster Grandparent program, there are also volunteer opportunities through RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, which is also affiliated with the county Department of Aging.

RSVP is part of a national organization, the Corporation for National and Community Service.

"RSVP has placed more than 500 volunteers throughout the county," said its director, Peggy Morgan. "We work in partnership with organizations like the county police and museums."

For more information about the Foster Grandparent program or RSVP, call 410-222-4464.

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