Lake County’s Foster Grandparent program helps students catch up academically

The volunteer-based service sends those 55 and older to help in local school classrooms as tutors and one-on-one mentors.|

How to participate

AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program sends volunteers 55 and older to serve in local school classrooms nationwide as tutors and one-on-one mentors. The largely government-funded program was established in 1965 under the Johnson administration as a way to encourage low-income older adult citizens to engage in community service while earning a small stipend.

This program is available in Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The Sonoma program will be coming soon.

Experience: In Lake County, no formal experience in tutoring or mentoring is required. The pre-service orientation and training is provided by North Coast Opportunity Volunteer Network.

Time commitment: Foster Grandparents serve from 5-40 hours per week and a minimum of 260 hours per year per volunteer.

Payment: The program provides a small tax-free stipend of $3.00 per hour as an enabler to volunteer. Volunteers also receive a token reimbursement for travel and other related benefits.

More information: http://www.volunteernco.org/

When Humboldt County resident Susan Nessen retired from the postal service nineteen years ago, she looked forward to leading a laid-back life.

"I'd always worked and I finally had time for other things,“ she said, "So I painted a couple of bedrooms and did some landscaping around the house, that kind of thing. And then one day I remember standing outside and thinking: This is retirement? Ew."

Not one to waste time, Nessen was soon on the lookout for something new to do that would be fun, interesting and — most important — beneficial to others.

"I'd always enjoyed being around children," she said, "so I thought I'd see about volunteering at a school."

Not before long she was a volunteer teacher's helper in a first grade class at Rio Dell's Eagle Prairie Elementary School in Humboldt County.

Seventeen years later, now 75, Nessen's still at it and going strong. She's had a long enough run that this year one of the earliest students she worked with has returned to the school as a kindergarden teacher.

"That is just so rewarding," she said.

Nessen is a member of the AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program, which sends volunteers 55 and older to serve in local school classrooms nationwide as tutors and one-on-one mentors. The largely government-funded program was established in 1965 under the Johnson administration as a way to encourage low-income older adult citizens to engage in community service while earning a small stipend.

The five North Bay counties — Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma — have joined together to create a thriving Foster Grandparent Program. Each county has a lead coordinator, with the entire joint program managed by North Coast Opportunities, the region's Community Action Agency.

The north bay program dates back to 1973, when Mendocino County became the first county in the region to launch a Foster Grandparent Program. Sonoma County, the coalition's newest member, is just getting its program off the ground.

The five counties combined have 52 volunteer grandparents who, together, contribute between 35,000 and 50,000 hours of service yearly to students ranging from pre-school through high school. Those numbers are expected to rise in the future as Sonoma County's grandparent ranks begin to fill.

Decline in educational scores

"It's such an effective program," said Monica Vanoven, who oversees the Foster Grandparent Program for North Coast Opportunities Volunteer Network. "In a class of thirty kids, teachers just don't have time to work one-on-one with students who need extra help. The way the program works is that teachers assign specific children, those who need special attention, to foster grandparents. They then work with the kids, which is hugely important in developing a child's abilities."

That's particularly true now, when multiple studies indicate that COVID-19 has disrupted education, including school closures and remote learning, which have affected student learning nationwide. The latest study, released in October by the National Center for Education Statistics, indicated that average 2022 scores nationwide for 9-year-old students declined 5 points in reading and 7 points in mathematics compared to 2020.

That's the largest score decline in reading since 1990 — and the first ever decline in mathematics.

"It's not just children's academic growth that's been affected," said Maureen Conway, 75, a foster grandmother for the last five years at Lakeport Elementary School in Lake County.

"Their social skills haven't developed the way they should, either,“ she said. ”They weren't in school for a long time, and when they came back they were wearing masks, couldn't play games with any physical contact, and missing out on a variety of other things that promote the learning of social skills.“

Foster grandparents help kids

Conway feels that present-day third-graders have been penalized the most. Many of the same kindergarteners she mentored before the coronavirus pandemic she now works with in a third grade class.

"Those kids missed out on the years when they learn the most — first grade, second grade, grabbing hold of those basic math and reading skills," she said. "It's going to take a long time for them to catch up."

One of the children she works with these days is 8-year-old Abbie Sabol. Like many kids who spent the previous two school years class-Zooming instead of class-rooming, Sabol is working hard to catch up to traditional third-grade academic levels.

"Abbie's a little behind academically," said Conway. "She's eager to learn, though, and she doesn't give up. She's right in there, doing her best. Just in the short time I've worked with her, I've seen an improvement. She really wants to learn."

Sabol’s mother, Shelby Sabol, is pleased with her daughter's progress.

"Working with Grandma Maureen has given Abbie more drive and motivation," her mother said. "Abbie's very into learning and practicing what she's learned in class."

As for the student herself?

"Grandma Maureen has helped me learn how to concentrate," she said. "And she's helped me with learning times tables and working on computers."

She adds, "Grandma Maureen is very nice to us."

Warmth, love, encouragement

"The work the grandparents do is very structured," said Vanoven. "If a student is below the reading level, the grandparent helps that child get up to par and pass on to the next grade. Or they may help with math, or whatever the teacher feels a student needs. It's one-on-one work with the grandparent, not part of the class led by the teacher. Statistics have shown the improvement of these students, whether academically or emotionally, over the course of a year."

Sometimes the help a child needs has little to do with academics, and everything to do with the warmth, love and affection most people associate with the idea of a grandparent.

"Some of these kids come from disfunctional homes," Conway said. "Or they have other problems. This year I have a classroom where three kids have different levels of autism. The teacher has 26 kids in that class, and she can't give them all individual help.“

That’s where Conway comes in and works one-on-one with the kids, offering encouragement and a safe place for them to learn.

“When they talk, I listen. You're there for them academically, but you're also there for them emotionally,” she said. “They need reassurance that they're okay. The one-on-one is valuable, and that's what I can provide."

Three years ago Nessen worked with a first-grade boy who was dealing with a lot at home.

"He had a lot of emotional issues," Nessen said. "And for some reason he clung to me and wouldn't participate in class unless I tried to help him read and sound letters."

The child was ultimately adopted into a loving home and, now in the fourth grade, is doing well.

"He's still part of my life, though," Nessen said. "We go bowling from time to time, or to the movies."

A long-lasting bond

Toni Maier, now in her fifth year as a Foster Grandparent at Clearlake's Pomo Elementary School, discovered that she had a talent for mentoring children with behavioral issues.

"For whatever reason," she said. "I bond with them. If they have a tantrum, the teachers say 'Grandma, can you take him or her for a walk?' I'm respectful to the kids and their needs. I ask questions about their lives and I listen to them. Listening is so important. That's when you hear about the things that make them act out the way they do."

One year, while grandmothering a second grade class, Maier was assigned a boy who had trouble expressing himself and got angry often.

Maier began working with him on Prodigy, a computer program he loved. She'd sit with him, they'd talk, and, little-by-little, he opened up to her. She encouraged him to say please and thank you, and how important it is to raise your hand in class.

"The teacher slowly began to put him in positions where he'd be in charge of something — he'd be a line leader, say, or the kid assigned to turn off the lights,“ she said. ”It's good to praise kids as they learn responsibility, and when he was given praise you knew he was pleased, but he'd always say 'Just doing my job.'“

Today this student is in the fifth grade, and whenever he sees Maier he runs over and says "Grandma, I love you," and hugs her.

"He does this even when he's with his peers," Maier said. "This kind of thing happens with many foster grandparents. When you listen, give undivided attention, help kids understand the world around them — well, something good has to come out of it. And it does."

Something good comes out of it not just for the children, but for everyone involved.

"My mantra about the program's value is simple," said Nessen. "It's a win, win, win for teachers, kids, and seniors. And it's great for the community, too."

Conway echoed those same thoughts and often encourages others to be a part of the rewarding experience.

"I don't want to be a 75-year-old woman sitting in a rocking chair,“ Conway said. "As a Foster Grandparent, I know that I am contributing something that matters, because these kids are going to be our leaders.’”

How to participate

AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program sends volunteers 55 and older to serve in local school classrooms nationwide as tutors and one-on-one mentors. The largely government-funded program was established in 1965 under the Johnson administration as a way to encourage low-income older adult citizens to engage in community service while earning a small stipend.

This program is available in Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Humboldt and Del Norte counties. The Sonoma program will be coming soon.

Experience: In Lake County, no formal experience in tutoring or mentoring is required. The pre-service orientation and training is provided by North Coast Opportunity Volunteer Network.

Time commitment: Foster Grandparents serve from 5-40 hours per week and a minimum of 260 hours per year per volunteer.

Payment: The program provides a small tax-free stipend of $3.00 per hour as an enabler to volunteer. Volunteers also receive a token reimbursement for travel and other related benefits.

More information: http://www.volunteernco.org/

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