'They make kids feel safe'

The Baltimore Sun

At 87, Venus Armstrong is spry enough to volunteer at Ruth Parker Eason School five mornings a week. But when the preschool children begin dancing to the urgent beat of "I Like to Move It," she has to sit down after a few minutes of boogieing down.

The Ferndale resident, a longtime foster grandparent at the special education school in Millersville, is one of four volunteers with the program who will be honored Friday for putting in 20 years or more of helping students who are at risk or have special needs. The Anne Arundel County Department of Aging and Disabilities will also honor Gladys Cook, Romaine Parker and Marie Wallis.

Known as "Grandma" to students and teachers, Armstrong sings and claps along to songs that teach the days of the week and the parts of the body. The students in the Early Childhood Intervention class all have developmental disabilities, whether it's speech problems or autism. Armstrong gently prods students to pay attention by pointing to the teacher when their eyes wander to her. She gives them a smile when she notices them frown.

"You get to know them and their condition," Armstrong said. "You learn you have to work with them."

The county has 16 volunteer stations with 52 grandparents, all but two of whom are women, said Kristin Plumer, the foster grandparent director. Volunteers must be at least 60 years old and are assigned to one site where they serve 20 hours a week, usually four hours a day. They work with students who have physical or developmental disabilities, learning problems or are the victims of neglect or abuse. Volunteers receive meals during their service as well as transportation, an annual physical and monthly training. Those who meet income eligibility guidelines can receive a small stipend.

Wallis, 86, also volunteers at Ruth Parker Eason. She and Armstrong started there about the same time and became best friends.

"I thought I'd only stay a week," Wallis said. Wallis, who lives in Glen Burnie, works with students ages 15 to 20. All are in wheelchairs. None can speak. Wallis helps wheel them to the nurse's station occasionally, but mainly she sits with them and talks.

"I ask them if they had a nice weekend and [tell them] that they look so pretty," Wallis said. "They just look at me and smile."

Parker, 84, of Annapolis, retired from her job as a cook at the Naval Academy in 1987. She was bored, and her brother encouraged her to find volunteer work. Parker became a foster grandparent and has worked at Obery Court Head Start Program since then. She helps teach preschoolers their names and numbers.

"They run up to me and give me a hug and say, 'There comes Grandma,'" Parker said.

Cook, 83, of Annapolis, retired on disability from her job as a nurse when back trouble felled her in the late 1970s. After a few years of recovery, she started with Foster Grandparents at Annapolis Garden Head Start. Cook reads stories to the preschool-age children. She plays with them and comforts them when they cry.

"I love them," Cook said. "I think they love me too."

Cook, who has seven great-grandchildren, likes working with young children, but said she no longer has the energy she once had. Unlike the other three women who will be honored with her, she is thinking of retiring in another year.

Armstrong, who never had children, said she would volunteer as long as she is able. After she retired from Westinghouse in the mid-1980s, a neighbor persuaded her to be a foster grandparent. Her neighbor died, but Armstrong continued in the program. She also outlived her husband, Roland Armstrong, and lives alone now with her dog, Rex.

Armstrong once handled some of the most "difficult" children at the school - students with severe behavioral problems, said Paulette Tanoue, acting principal of Ruth Parker Eason. Armstrong had a way of bringing calm to situations in which students were throwing chairs, punching teachers and jumping off tables.

"But Grandma, it just rolled off her back," said Michel Churchill, the early childhood intervention teacher at Ruth Parker Eason. "She kept us laughing."

In addition to Wallis and Armstrong, Ruth Parker Eason has three other grandparents. Tanoue said that they seem to have a relaxing effect on students because children tend to form more personal relationships with them than with teachers.

"I think they've been able to provide a relationship with kids that in many cases have made a difference," Tanoue said. "They make kids feel safe."

The experience also gives back to the grandparents, Tanoue said. "It's about valuing people and it's about providing a place where they can feel valued," she said.

The county will hold its Volunteer Tea Recognition from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park.

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