Foster grandparents enrich toddlers’ lives – and vice versa

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BOSTON – Toddlers bounced around the classroom in the Head Start site on Geneva Avenue in Dorchester, playing with toys, building with blocks or making their way up the climbing structure. Standing tall above the children, Bobbie Williams, 78, smiled as she offered to read a picture book to a young girl running by.

“It’s fun to watch them. You can see how they don’t talk and then all of a sudden they start talking,” said Williams, who has been a foster grandparent for eight years.

Foster Grandparent Bobbie Williams reads a book to Tiara, 22 months old, at the Head Start site in Dorchester. (New Boston Post, photo by Beth Treffeisen)

Foster Grandparent Bobbie Williams reads a book to Tiara, 22 months old, at the Head Start site in Dorchester. (New Boston Post, photo by Beth Treffeisen)

For almost 50 years, the Foster Grandparents program has been giving older adults the chance to give back to the community and work with younger generations. As part of Action for Boston Community Development, or ABCD, an anti-poverty agency that serves 95,000 low-income Bostonians annually, Foster Grandparents connects seniors with children in schools, daycare centers, and Head Start sites.

“There is nothing like Foster Grandparents,” said Doris Dennis, 85, who has been a foster grandparent for 11 years. “Instead of sitting in a house all day with nothing to do, you come in here, and you meet everybody, and you enjoy it.”

Foster grandparents are provided transportation to and from their sites, and are paid a small stipend of $2.65 an hour. They work up to 20 hours each week. Although the program accepts adults starting at age 55, most of the participants range in age from mid-60s to early 90s.

“It’s pretty amazing. Most of our foster grandparents that are in their 80s are so agile, are so with it, you would not know that they are 80, 82, 85,” said Sharon Scott-Chandler, executive vice president of ABCD.

The foster grandparents also receive training each year on how best to serve the children they work with, who range from newborns through elementary-school age.

“Some foster grandparents don’t even have grandchildren and some children don’t even have grandparents,” Williams said. “It’s important for them to learn and interact with an older person and if you don’t have anybody – not like my case, I wasn’t sitting at home lonely – but some people are alone, so this is great for them.”

There are currently 155 foster grandparents in the program and each is paired with a student in a classroom. Although they focus on one child with special needs, including social or emotional help, they interact with all the children in the classroom.

Scott-Chandler believes the program serves two important purposes: one, research shows that the earlier one develops children’s brains, the more success they will have in the future, and second, parents need to have a safe environment to place their children while they are working during the day.

“A lot of people don’t have the luxury of staying home with their children,” said Scott-Chandler. “To have a space and an environment to learn and be safe is incredibly important for both moms and dads.”

Many of the parents who begin their children’s education in Head Start use those tools they learn there to become more engaged in their children’s education as they move onto elementary school and beyond, she said.

“There’s a lot that happens between pre-school and your 20s and so no, not every child has had the success they would hope, but at the same time we just see how many children are positively impacted by it,” Scott-Chandler said.

She believes there is need for more early childhood education.  Although many advocate for the cause, the city hasn’t fully met the need.

“For one thing, there is not enough space available for all the children who need it,” said Scott-Chandler. “Especially in the earliest years for infants and toddlers, there really is a void where high quality early education is concerned.”

For many of the children, the bond they create with their grandparents can be incredibly powerful, Williams said.

“A lot of them don’t get that nurturing. I mean that’s the problem – they don’t. And because a lot of the parents are really young, they didn’t have it and they don’t know how to give it,” she said.

“When the kids come in here I hug them, I love them, make them feel special,” she continued. “That helps them. We see it a lot. They might come in real shy and they can come out of it and really blossom and that’s a good feeling.”

Dennis said she enjoys showing up to work because if she didn’t come, she would be sitting in her house with nothing to do, and she would really miss the children.

Dennis said, “When you walk to the door and you look in the glass there and they say ‘Oh grandma! Oh grandma!’ that makes you feel good.”