Foster Grandparents Make a Difference in Area Classrooms

DES MOINES, Iowa –Most students don't get to see their grandparents at school, or even on a regular basis. A program that helps fill that gap, and participants say it helps all involved.

Walk into Erin Jennings Kindergarten classroom at Wright Elementary, and you'll notice she has a little help. "She's my right-hand Gram," said Jennings.

She’s talking about Vivian Bryson. Bryson is a foster grandparent. It’s  a program through the United Ways of Iowa. Bryson said, "I love every one of them. I have eight grandchildren of my own who are expected to love me. So, when you can come and have strange kids love you and write little notes that they love you"

Jennings said she is a big help providing one-on-one help for students with math and reading. Jennings said, "She's amazing. I'm so glad to have her here. It's like a deep sigh of relief when she walks in the door. I don't know what I'd do without her."

The program also helps Bryson. She joined the foster grandparent program three years ago. She said, "I needed a way to get my life situated again, get back active in life after a serious illness. I wasn't quite strong enough to get into full time job, and I just wanted to give back to the community."

The program has been around since the 1960'sit is run through United Ways of Iowa in counties across the state. You must be 55 or older and volunteer 15 to 40 hours a week. Program Coordinator Gayle Coon said, "It's a great way for them to stay active and feel needed and serve a useful purpose again, but then also benefits the children involving that one on one mentoring, tutoring that's so desperately needed."

Thirty-two foster grandparents serve about twenty schools, daycares, and other learning centers in Polk County alone. Twenty foster grandparents serve more than ten programs in Boone, Dallas Marshall and Story Counties.

They're always looking for more volunteers, and you don’t need any experience. A grant from the Corporation for National Community Service pays for the program, which provides training before and during a foster grandparent's time in the classroom.

"She can not only help them with academics, but she's also a confidant and a role model for them," said Jennings.

"That's what I try to do, help the teachers, help the children, just make it a better day for everybody. And, it certainly makes me have a bright day,” said Bryson.

Interested volunteers in Polk County should contact Gayle Coon at gcoon@uwiservice.org or 515-443-0275. Those in Boone, Dallas, Marshall an Story Counties should contact Kathy Jipson at kjipson@uwiservice.org or 515-443-1007.