Story by Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
Photos courtesy Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans
Recently, an 8-year-old girl spotted Phyllis Bolden at Walgreen’s and ran straight into her arms, exclaiming, “Grandma! I miss you!”
Although she wasn’t Bolden’s flesh-and-blood granddaughter, the child had developed a special bond with the 69-year-old after having been under her wing during ages 2 and 3 – through Catholic Charities’ Foster Grandparent Program.
In operation for more than 35 years, the program pairs seniors ages 55 years and older with youngsters who need a little extra, one-on-one attention in the classroom.
“It’s just a joy, this program. It keeps me young,” said Bolden, a Foster Grandparent who volunteers 40 hours a week at the Incarnate Word Head Start Center, located in the Carrollton area of New Orleans. Most days, Bolden helps the two children to whom she is assigned with their alphabet and numbers.
“I color with them; I play games with them; I get on the floor with them,” Bolden said. “If I wasn’t working here, I would be volunteering in a hospital. I just enjoy helping people.”
East and West Bank venues
Currently, 76 Foster Grandparents serve at 18 locations, including at four of the five Head Start centers operated by Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans: Incarnate Word, St. John the Baptist, St. Paul the Apostle and St. Mary of the Angels.
The Foster Grandparents’ reach also includes three Catholic elementary schools (Resurrection of Our Lord and St. Mary’s Academy in New Orleans, and St. Anthony in Gretna); nine charter and public schools; and Head Start centers operated by Kingsley House and the Urban League.
“Generally, our volunteers are retired principals, teachers and bus drivers who really are missing the children, who want to be back in the classroom,” said Priscilla Mantilla, program director. “This gives them a way to work with children, without the responsibilities of putting together all those lesson plans.”
Those Foster Grandparents who meet U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) poverty guidelines are paid an hourly stipend of $2.65. They may commit to as few as five hours per week, up to as many as 40 weekly hours, Mantilla said.
“Our grant is under Senior Corps, which is the sister of Americorps,” she explained.
Bolden, a six-year veteran of the program, loves working with her requested age group of 2- and 3-year olds.
“You never know what’s gonna come out of their little mouths. Out of the clear, blue sky they say the funniest things!” Bolden said, noting that she enjoys teaching her precocious little ones their birth month and birth year.
“We’ll bring them to the cafeteria to help them get their food and open their milk cartons,” she said. “We learn to wash our hands and carry our tray to the table.”
Bolden, a widowed empty-nester who was twiddling her thumbs after retiring from a career as a nursing assistant and casino card dealer, heard about Foster Grandparents through a friend involved in the program. She meets some of her fellow volunteers for dinner a few times a year and celebrates holidays and birthdays with them.
“If you just sit at home all day long, then everything goes downhill,” Bolden said.
Monthly check-ins, tracking
The Foster Grandparents from all 18 locations gather at the program’s Incarnate Word headquarters once a month to troubleshoot challenges they might be encountering in the classroom. The monthly gatherings typically feature a social and educational component, with recent topics including diabetes management, hurricane preparedness and introductory yoga.
They also discuss the academic progress of their “foster grandchildren,” which is tracked under a requirement of the Senior Corps grant.
“Not only do we track (students’ performance), but the schools track it, too. The students are doing much better in their LEAP testing,” Mantilla said, praising her Foster Grandparents’ on-the-job patience, consistency and listening skills. She said some of her volunteers love working with their students so much, they dislike sacrificing classroom time to attend the monthly gatherings.
“Statistically, (volunteering) does help with depression; it helps them get out of their homes,” Mantilla said. “Some of them don’t have anything to do at home – their children are grown and living their lives, and their (real) grandchildren might be living out of state. This gives them something beneficial to look forward to every day.”
Terms of endearment
Lois Cambre, a 25-year Catholic Charities employee who is retiring next month after 14 years as the Foster Grandparent Program’s coordinator, said the oldest currently serving volunteer is 95. She marveled at how one Foster Grandparent, who began volunteering at age 85, “is as energetic as someone in their 50s.”
They usually are called the same name their biological grandchildren use to address them, such as “Nana,” “Granny” and “Ya Ya.”
“When students first meet their Foster Grandparent, some of them will say, ‘I already have a grandmother,’ but they tell them, ‘I’m just gonna be your grandmother while you’re here at school,’” Cambre said.
“Another thing is, (our volunteers) don’t have to discipline – that’s the role of the teacher,” Cambre added. “They are just there to hug and nurture the children.”
All faiths are welcome to apply. For more information, call Priscilla Mantilla at 310-6882 or email email@example.com.