A new chapter. A second chance. A sense of purpose. These sentiments are echoed among many of the grandparents who participate in the Sparks-based Foster Grandparent Program of Northern Nevada, which places senior citizens in schools and youth programs throughout the region to help mentor children.
Almost 100 grandparents impart their wisdom and love to thousands of children through the program, which often gives volunteers a sense of altruism and renewed life.
Jeri Pedersen, a 70-year-old grandparent who has been with the program for almost two years, likens the experience to being a butterfly. “A butterfly means new beginnings,” she said. “A butterfly is in the last part of its life and that is exactly what this program has given us – a new beginning – because we’ve gone through all the rough times in life. Our cocoon, our frustration, and in turn, we have all the wisdom that we’ve acquired through the years. We’re happy with ourselves. We are not afraid to be ourselves and it’s OK to make mistakes. We are all butterflies.”
Mary Brock, executive director of Seniors in Service, said the Foster Grandparent Program was created in Northern Nevada in 1976. Its goal is to help children meet academic standards set by the school board, teachers and guidance counselors and to help prepare them to succeed as they move forward.
“For volunteers, it gives them purpose,” Brock said. “They see the direct result of their service, and when these kids are taken from their one-on-one, or from their little cohort group, and they’re put into the regular classroom, the volunteer knows that they played a part in helping them meet an academic goal. They met that, and so they made a difference in that little one’s life and that has a lot of intrinsic value.”
Mary McGalliard, the longest-serving volunteer in the program, has been with the program for more than 26 years and has witnessed the profound effects that the program has on everyone involved.
“It touches so many lives,” McGalliard said. “It does touch it – between the kids and the teachers, and once in a while, parents. It does. It’s helping build some good citizens for the future of this country.”
For the 88-year-old, one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a foster grandparent is the love she receives from the children and the appreciation from teachers.
“What you get back out of a kid is worth a million dollars,” McGalliard said. “A love, a thank you, ‘hey grandma, will you read with me, please?’ And I’m sure a lot of the teachers would say that they’re a big help because you get the kids that are having problems that the teacher does not have time for.”
In addition to making a difference in the classroom, the program also provides an opportunity for seniors to stay active and engaged, while making an impact on the lives of the children around them.
“The government has a lot of programs, but I think this is the only one that pays for itself in the long run,” McGalliard said. “The return from this program, the government will never ever understand how much.”
One of the most touching moments McGalliard has experienced in the program was when a child that she fostered in the first grade graduated from high school, and when he named the two people that he thought had made a big difference in his life, he spotlighted his first-grade teacher and McGalliard.
“I don’t think there’s any way to put a money value or anything like that on helping somebody become a success,” McGalliard said. “I just don’t think there’s any way of explaining how much that means to you and how good it makes you feel.”
Volunteer Hal Pagni, a grandpa who’s been with the program for a few weeks, jumped at the chance to make a difference, to help build a strong foundation for children to thrive in and to ultimately become successful.
“I believe that children mimic adults, and if we have good role models, then that gives them some foundation to build on,” Pagni said. “Being a volunteer, hopefully I can add some substance to their foundation that maybe they wouldn’t have gotten.”
Pagni, 68, got involved with the program to help children reach their academic goals and in turn, has felt a renewed sense of purpose.
“Being in this program has given me a second opportunity – a second life. I feel useful now,” Pagni said. “If more grandparents were to get involved with the program, they may be missing something in their life and not realize it. But if they get around kids, they can hopefully get a feeling that they have served another purpose in an older life.”
According to foster grandma Pedersen, belonging to the program is a gift and a blessing, and a great way to put her energy to good use.
“I’m a part of tomorrow and that’s what is fascinating,” Pedersen said. “Being a part of opening new doors for them. There’s no greater gift than to see that face light up and to encourage them in a grandma way.”
Because of her enthusiasm and passion, Pedersen was given the opportunity to train three other grandmas within the program. She is known for sharing the analogy of butterflies and second chances with new members.
“You know what this means?” Pedersen says she asks new members. “New beginnings. And that’s what you just gave yourself.”
In addition to helping children reach academic goals, the program allows children to interact with different generations and learn about diversity.
“It’s gold,” said Ann McLaughlin, kindergarten teacher at Robert Mitchell. “The children interacting with different age groups brings it to real world and they know how to interact then. They learn how to interact with people who aren’t their family … they learn to respect and cherish.”
According to Sheri Brown, coordinator for the Foster Grandparent Program, volunteers average more than 7,100 hours of service per month, at more than 40 different youth-related agencies, including Kid’s Cottage, Jan Evans Juvenile Justice Center, the Boys and Girls Club and various schools throughout the region.
The program currently has 94 volunteers between the ages of 57 and 95, but the goal is to reach about 120 volunteers. Additionally, to help raise money for the Foster Grandparent Program, Seniors in Service will host their 4th annual Pirates, Pins and Pints bowl-a-thon fundraiser event in October to help raise funds for volunteer stipends.
For more information about volunteering with the Foster Grandparent Program, contact Sheri Brown, Foster Grandparent Program coordinator, at 775-358-2768 or firstname.lastname@example.org.