Susan Hunter (right) a Foster Grandparent, with an educator from her volunteer location at Ringgold Elementary South in Monongahela, PA. Photo courtesy Foster Grandparents of Southwestern PA.

Grandmas and grandpas. They’re the queens and kings of nurturing, patience and wisdom. And it’s just those qualities that make them so successful, and so beloved, by children who aren’t even their “real” grandchildren.

“We had a little boy who didn’t know his ABCs. He was so shy that other kids would make fun of him,” says Grandma Joanne, a Foster Grandparent volunteer at the Charleroi Head Start program, which serves children ages 3-5. “We got him up to par, even spelling small words. He was so proud of himself and the self-confidence he gained was just wonderful. He felt like he was successful and fit in.”

Foster Grandparents of Southwestern PA pairs low-income seniors with volunteer opportunities at area early childhood programs, elementary schools and after-school programs. For the program volunteers, the rewards are the love from the children and the pride in seeing them develop and succeed.

Sponsored locally by the nonprofit Private Industry Council  in Greensburg, Foster Grandparents of Southwestern PA is the local branch of a national federally funded program  that started in 1965. They currently have 125 volunteers in six local counties, but their goal is to get to 250. Grandma Joanne says she encourages every senior to give the program a try.

“An older person can go from sitting home, alone, depressed, to helping these children, hearing them laughing, and getting hugs,” Joanne says. “I love seeing the children gain and improve. Some come in not knowing their letters or colors or having socialization skills. Some don’t have table manners. So we show them how to sit at the table properly, use utensils, We introduce them to different types of foods, not just fast food and junk food. It expands their horizons. They start off behind other kids, but we try to make sure they’re on target so they can be equal with their peers when they get to kindergarten.”

Maria Campieri, program supervisor of Foster Grandparents of Southwestern PA, said there’s also a financial benefit for senior volunteers, who must meet a requirement of 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines to participate. “The seniors get a non-taxable stipend of $2.65 for every hour they serve, plus federal funding offsets any costs they incur to volunteer, like transportation.”

Grandma Joanne said while the greatest reward is the love of the children, she’s also grateful for the stipend. “For me, I was keeping the gas low at home, on 62. Now we can have it at 68. My husband was getting icicles on his forehead!” Volunteers are also treated to an annual recognition luncheon in their honor.

“It’s a unique pairing of elderly people with young children. And both learn a lot from each other,” says Kim Dellefemine, education manager for Pittsburgh Public Schools’ early childhood education program. “The foster grandparents are especially helpful during small group times. They can help a child with patterns or writing their name or whatever the need may be. And sometimes a child will want to be with one of the foster grandparents just because they need an extra hug that day.”

When a teacher pairs a foster grandparent with a child who’s having difficulty, the results show. “The foster grandparent will take on that child and we definitely see improvement with the children and their testing. That one-on-one interaction improves the children’s academics,” Dellefemine says.

Campieri said tracking and reporting results are a required, and useful, part of the Foster Grandparents program. “We focus on three areas in doing the reports: Improvement in academics, especially math and reading. This is based on feedback from the teachers saying whether there was improvement or not.  Second is improvement in school attendance. And third, the teachers report twice a year whether or not there are gains in social and emotional development. A lot of the children have so much going on at home and they bring that to school. We’re trying to catch them a little bit earlier so they can have more successes in kindergarten through 12th grade and outside of high school,” Campieri says.

While the kids certainly benefit from their classroom grandmas, Dellefemine and Campieri both say the teachers benefit just as much. “The teachers are crazy in love with our foster grandparents,” Campieri says. “A lot of teachers don’t have the extra support in the classroom they need. Our Head Start classrooms, our elementary school classrooms, they’re all so thankful, because it allows them to devote more time to individual children. Plus the teachers are learning from the volunteers as well.”

When the kids call every volunteer “grandma,” it can cause some amusing confusion, Dellefemine says. “Sometimes, as an administrator, it’s funny because I’ll get a call from a parent who will say ‘Um, my son said his grandmother was in his class yesterday?’ So I’ll have to explain it wasn’t his actual grandma.”

Having so many “grandmas” points out an interesting disparity in Foster Grandparents of Southwestern PA—one they’re eager to change. They currently have 124 grandmas, but only one grandpa. The reason? They’re not sure. Women typically outlive men, which may be part of it. But certainly, they feel, there are plenty of prospective grandpas who would love to spend time with grandchildren, and plenty of children who badly need more time with a positive male presence.

“I’d love to see more foster grandpas,” Dellefemine says. “I think that would be great. A grandfather can bring something unique to the classroom and the children, different skills. We had one grandpa who loved woodworking and even made trains for the kids with their names on them.”

What makes a senior so especially good at volunteering with children? “Their experience and their patience makes them exceptional,” Campieri says. “Having lived through all these generations and seeing how things have changed. They have so much to give.”

Dellefemine agrees, and says many seniors may not realize just how much they have to offer and how valuable they can be. “Each one has very unique skills and abilities that a child can learn from. Some are great readers. Some love art. They’re able to give more to these kids with their life experience than someone younger would be able to do. They can enrich their lives and get rewarded back with smiles and laughter and hugs. Plus it’s a reason to get up and out in the morning. Your kids want you!”

Grandma Joanne says being a Foster Grandparent is a very important part of her life. “The women get to socialize with each other and the teachers. But most of all, we feel good when we help the kids. And these kids give a lot of love. They’ll say, “Grandma, I love you.” When you’re older, that means the world.”

To learn more about Foster Grandparents of Southwestern PA, including volunteering or suggesting a site that needs volunteers, becoming a member of a community advisory council, or making a tax-deductible donation, contact Maria Campieri at 724-836-2600, ext. 281, or mcampieri@privateindustrycouncil.com.

Jonathan Wander

'Burgh-loving Jonathan Wander (Twitter: @jmwander) has written for various publications including Men’s Health, and has gratefully guest-posted on amazing sites like That’s Church.