By LAURA CARRELL
Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — "It's so rewarding to see faces light up when they finally 'get it.'"
"I get lots of hugs. He thinks I'm his real grandma."
"I can give love where it's needed and wanted."
"It provides a stable adult to listen to them and encourage them."
"It helps me because I'm not alone all the time."
"There are some funny stories, some sad stories, but mostly triumphant stories."
"There are days I just listen and let them know I care."
Thirty-three Foster Grandparent participants were part of the annual recognition banquet at the Hotel Ottumwa Thursday evening, and all of the stories were the same: It's a powerful, life-changing program.
The goal of the program is to offer meaningful volunteer opportunities to Wapello County seniors to focus primarily on reading with children who may be at risk of falling behind in school due to lack of adequate reading skills. The volunteers spend 15-40 hours each week in supervised settings like elementary schools, YMCA, Head Start centers and other community agencies who provide services for children.
The FGP is administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service as part of Senior Corps. The local sponsor is American Home Finding Association.
Nationally, the program will turn 50 years old in 2015, and it has been in Ottumwa since 2000. While the numbers have fluctuated over the years, project director Debra Adam says the devotion and dedication of the grandmas and grandpas keep it going.
"I'm approaching retirement age, and I feel like this is the best thing someone can do," she said.
The evening included recognition of each school and agency that foster grandparents work with. Principals, teachers, supervisors and administrators were on hand to show their support of the grandmas and grandpas, but they also received their own special moment.
"This is a really great thing, and it's certainly a pleasure and a privilege to work with these grandparents," said Tom Sisler, executive director of the YMCA, as he accepted a certificate of appreciation. "What you bring to the children, to the preschoolers, to the toddlers is truly amazing. I want to say thank you very, very much."
The group has three activities each year: a Christmas party, a banquet in the spring and a bus trip in June. Following the dinner Thursday, the grandparents and their guests were treated to a performance by Sounds of Harmony, a group of barbershop singers.
In the most powerful part of the evening, Adam explained that she had several of the grandparents write an essay about what the Foster Grandparents Program means to them. A handful were then asked to read theirs to the group.
The focus of each message wasn't about the stipend they receive, though they are compensated for their time, or spotlighting themselves. What these seniors take away from their volunteer time, each one said, was making the difference in the life of a child.
"(The Foster Grandparents Program) takes the experiences of a loving grandparent and provides a child with a caring adult. That child may have difficulties in life, but they now have the consistency of one grandparent in life. This is good for the kids, good for the grandparents, good for the schools and good for Ottumwa," said Mayor Tom Lazio, who also received an appreciation certificate.
Anyone interested in learning more about the program or finding out how to qualify to be a volunteer can call Adam at 641-682-3449 ext. 103.
— Follow reporter Laura Carrell on Twitter @CourierLauraC