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Foster Grandparents Stay Engaged and Give Back Foster Grandparents Stay Engaged and Give Back
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Foster Grandparents Stay Engaged and Give Back

Insights & Ideas Team •  February 1, 2017 | Home and Family

Within a year of his retirement, Michael Kehoe knew his initial plan to “catch up on some reading and writing” wasn’t going to be enough to keep him satisfied. “I was trying different things to keep up my interest. They weren’t completely filling the void. And then I found this opportunity with the Foster Grandparents Program,” he said. “I initially started with 20 hours a week, and after a couple of months it became basically a full-time position. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last three years.”

Kehoe is one of 30,000 volunteers who participate in Foster Grandparents, a nationwide program run by the Corporation for National & Community Service Senior Corps, open to seniors age 55 and over. The program’s goal is to give seniors an opportunity to become role models, mentors, tutors and friends to children with special needs. It helps seniors stay active and engaged and gives them a chance to give back to their communities in a way that’s uniquely valuable.

“I’ve found that young kids very often will trust someone who is significantly older than them,” said Kehoe. “I’m not sure exactly what that is, but as a young teacher you sometimes have to work pretty hard at earning the respect of students who are really not that much younger than you. And I’ve found that—while people say it’s gone—young people in our society still have a level of respect for their elders.” 

The interactions between young people and their foster grandparents typically takes place in public schools, local youth facilities or Head Start programs, where volunteers spend 15-40 hours per week working one-on-one with students, tutoring them in essential skills such as reading, writing and math.

“In our program, reading is very popular. A lot of foster grandparents enjoy having a student read aloud to them, helping the student pronounce words and hearing their progress over time,” said Kayla Olson, who runs the Foster Grandparents Program in the communities of Racine and Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Math is a little harder to sell.”

The program is designed to match volunteers with opportunities that best fit their interests and strengths. Volunteers do not have to have a background in tutoring, education or serving children to participate. They don’t even have to be a grandparent, although Olson says many people ask if that’s a requirement.

“One of the most important prerequisites is simply to have a willingness to share your time and a desire to make a lasting, positive impact in the lives of children,” said Olson. “The extra set of hands, extra set of eyes is really important so we can reach as many students and community members as possible.”

If volunteering as a foster grandparent is something you’d like to explore, know:

  • You’ll receive professional training. You’ll receive 40 hours of training and orientation. And in some cases, you may also be required to shadow other foster grandparents for a period of time. 
  • You may be eligible for a federal stipend. Depending on your income, you may be eligible for a tax-free hourly stipend, as well as free supplemental accident and liability insurance while serving as a foster grandparent.
  • You’ll be screened. You’ll be required to complete an application, provide references, be interviewed and pass a criminal background check. 

Perhaps most important, according to Kehoe, is this: Becoming a foster grandparent gives you an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children and stay engaged in your community.

“One of the things you don’t want to have happen to you when you retire is you start to feel you’re irrelevant, un-useful and forgotten. That certainly doesn’t happen with this program,” said Kehoe. “It’s challenging in a positive way. It’s intellectually stimulating dealing with the kids. I enjoy what I’m doing. As long as I continue to enjoy it and as long as I don’t have any physical or mental challenges that restrict that, I’ll continue to do it.”

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