This was in an interview in 2006, 10 years after starting the Foster Grandparents Program in Cleveland, working with the Retired Seniors Volunteer Program. She is now retired, but the program continues, due much in part to her work.
Her involvement with the Foster Grandparent Program began when she worked part time with RSVP while volunteering with the Alzheimer’s office.
After her husband James, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in September 1990, died on Valentine’s Day in 1992, Miller started volunteering at the Chattanooga Alzheimer’s Chapter one day a week. She stayed with them 10 years.
She heard about the program for the first time when a RSVP volunteer said, “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too old to do something useful.” And so, Miller took that volunteer at her word and has passed the word along to others. “I loved to work with our volunteers,” Miller said. “They do such a great work.”
“Sharing the experience of a lifetime” is the motto of the program, and it explains what the foster grandparents do. “You could say, ‘Sharing the wisdom of a lifetime, too,’” Miller explained.
The foster grandparents from all walks of life, she said, have so much to offer. Some are former teachers, Sunday school workers, housewives, widows and widowers and, best of all, grandmothers — even without grandchildren of their own.
Although most of the volunteer grandparents have health problems of their own, they get out and go and can be proud of it. “They make all the difference in the world,” Miller said.
As the Foster Grandparent coordinator, her job included interviewing, recruiting and training the volunteers. She said foster-grandparenting is a two-way street. “I wanted the grandparents to get something and, at the same time, give to the children.”
She also drove the van — picked them up and took them to their school. “It’s an opportunity,” she said, “to volunteer and give back to the community.” And at the same time, she added, “it’s a financial help to the seniors who have low incomes.” (A small stipend is paid, but the income level has to be met.)
Perhaps it was her love for reading that prompted Miller to work in the Foster Grandparent Program. That is a main duty (or pleasure) for the volunteers at the schools, as they assist teachers in the classroom, giving individual attention to the students.
To qualify to become a Foster Grandparent volunteer, you must meet each of the following criteria:
—Be 60 years old or older.
—Have a total household annual income that does not exceed the federal income guidelines set by the Corporation for National Service.
—Be physically and mentally able to perform the tasks of a Foster Grandparent and pass a physical exam.
—No longer be in the regular work force.
—Be willing to accept and follow necessary supervision.
—Serve 20 hours a week.
—Care about children with special or exceptional needs and want to help them reach their fullest potential.
Volunteers take 20 hours’ training and study policies and procedures. The manual studied is from Human Services. They work directly under the teacher, but not as a substitute.
Alice Thomas has been a volunteer in the Foster Grandparents program more than six years. She began at the East Cleveland Center and is now at Head Start at Blythe Avenue. Donna Blum is the center’s director. Billie Wright is the Foster Grandparent coordinator.
Thomas said after she retired, she wanted to do something, but didn’t want a full-time job, and being a foster grandparent just suited her. She doesn’t have children or grandchildren of her own, so “I enjoy being a grandparent,” she said. “I love children” — which is the first qualification for a volunteer “grandmother.” Thomas has lived in Cleveland some 40 years, moving here from Sweetwater.
She helps in the classroom — 20 children — of teacher Jessica Bonner, reading to children, teaching fair play and teaching the ABC’s and numbers. She also gives kisses for a “boo-boo,” cheers up a child and being a comforter when needed.
“Most children,” she said, “know what a ‘grandmother’ means, and they take to a volunteer quickly.” The children at Blythe Ferry Head Start are from that community of neighbors in southeast Cleveland. Their ages range from 6 months to 5 years. Since many children are being raised by grandparents, it makes them well received. Some children, she added, don’t have anyone to teach them things at home.
“They know they can come sit in my lap,” Thomas said, “sharing tears and joys.” She said it’s hard when school is out and she doesn’t see them any more.
The foster grandparents get together at least once a month, go out and eat and take road trips together. That’s another good part of the job, she said.
There is a need, Thomas said, for men to be foster grandfathers. Children need a father figure in their lives, she confided, and the program needs men to volunteer. She said she would recommend the Foster Grandparent program for any man who loves kids and is 62 years old.
Oak Grove Elementary School has been a participant in the Foster Grandparent program since it began in Bradley County.
Principal Ted Bryson, in an earlier interview, said he considers the Foster Grandparent Program the best way the government can spend funds. “The program is working. And when I’m old enough I want to work,” he said. Bryson has been teaching since 1970 and has been at Oak Grove since 1994.
He said he feels the program is a gold mine of life experience, and “we need to tap into it.” He added that kids are losing a lot when they don’t have grandparents, and this program takes up the slack.
“The kids love them and they love the kids,” Bryson continued. “I can’t say enough about them — they believe they make a difference.”
Special education teacher Danielle Hulet of Georgia has served as the program coordinator at Oak Grove three years. A graduate of Lee University, she married and returned from her home in Georgia to teach in Cleveland.
Hulet said “Grandmother” JoAnn Schoate was already volunteering at Oak Grove when she was made coordinator and she has enjoyed working with her. Before becoming a Foster Grandmother at Oak Grove, Schoate worked with Dr. Jackie Adams Wattenbarger at Blythe Avenue Elementary.
After her husband died in 1995, she learned about the program, She said to herself, “I can do this.” She said she had always wanted to be a school teacher, so she signed up and took the instruction class.
In the meantime, she also had surgery for breast cancer, but is a survivor — “no problems,” she added. Schoate has lived in Cleveland 50 years and has four children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She and her husband came to Cleveland because their business, Friendly Furniture, was advertised in the Banner and they thought Cleveland would be a good place to live.
An 11-year Foster Grandparent veteran, she worked in the program first at East Cleveland School, with Jennifer Ratcliff.
Teacher Allison Chancey said Schoate “keeps me sane.” She helps teachers with small groups in reading and language skills — one-on-one — and does other things such as making copies, organizing books and materials and so forth. Schoate works five hours a day every weekday and her help “is spread around” with other teachers, Hulet said.
Chancey has been teaching for 30 years as of Dec. 1 this year and she loves having a Foster Grandparents in her classroom. She said Schoate will do anything she asks — “with a smile.”
Schoate is noted by her co-workers as always having a ready smile for the teachers and students. “Daddy always told me,” she said, “if you smile at people, they’ll smile back.”
A few days ago, Bryson was asked if he still felt the same way about the Foster Grandparent Program.
He replied, “It always helps to have an extra pair of hands.” He said they welcome them at the school — “they love kids and do a good job and the teachers love to have help in the classroom.”
The Foster Grandparent Program is appreciated at Oak Grove, he added, and he would recommend schools to try the program and “see how it works.”
Sherry Black of Chattanooga is the current director of the Foster Grandparent Program, which works with Retired Senior Volunteers in Cleveland and Bradley County.
Black said the week of Sept. 19-24 is National Senior Corps Week. “During this time, we recognize and celebrate the wonderful service Foster Grandparents contribute to our local communities.”
FGP is a part of the National Senior Service Corps which is administered through the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Black said this is such a wonderful program, “it’s a win for the community — a win for seniors — a win for special needs children.”
Black is president of the National Association of Foster Grandparent Program Directors — her second and final term. She said it has been a wonderful learning experience.
This professional association represents the majority of 330 Foster Grandparent Programs across the nation and it advocates and provides training and recognition on their behalf.
Black may be contacted by phone: 757-5510 or Fax: 757-5125.