A chance to lend a hand

Training for seniors who wish to volunteer in county program begins soon

Sadie McBroom, a foster grandmother at Kimbell Wiles Elementary School, helps out with kindergartners in teacher Yvonne Hughes classroom Thursday, Jan. 21. At left is Paige Williams, 5, and Solomon Weldy, 5, at right. Training for the county's foster-grandparent program, which sends senior adults to volunteer in area elementary schools, begins early February.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 11:28 p.m.

Gainesville resident Shirley Swan, 84, can still remember a little boy from the first kindergarten class she was a foster grandparent for 12 years ago.

"This child was really troubled, but I just fell in love with him. I really did," she said. "They asked me to help him, and we became real good friends."

Swan is one of about 115 seniors who, as part of the Alachua County Foster Grandparent Program, serve children in local childcare centers and after-school programs.

All foster grandparents must go through a two-week training process that is highly specialized and teaches helpers how to work with special-needs children.

The program's next training session for new volunteers is Feb. 8-19.

Volunteers learn everything they need to know to go in with confidence and expect to be successful, said Norma Berger, the program's coordinator.

"There is something very special about the bond between an older adult and a child," she said. "A lot of the kids that they serve don't have those older adults in their lives at home."

To volunteer, Alachua County residents must be over the age of 55 and be able to serve between 15 to 40 hours per week.

Over the years, Swan has accumulated 4,000 hours of service by spending one-on-one time with students three times a week.

"You're so proud at the end of the year because you see how much they can do. Even if it's just holding the pencil right."

As an additional incentive, volunteers earn an hourly stipend of $2.65, a daily meal, assistance with transportation, as well as an annual physical examination and supplemental insurance.

"They form a loving relationship with the children they serve," Berger said. "They tutor, they mentor and they help their children improve their behavior. We've heard lots of success stories."

Sadie McBroom, 75, has been volunteering for the last five years, and every day she said she is astounded by how much the students change from those first few weeks.

"It's just amazing," she said. "You're there to help the teachers and to help the students read and write. It's a good feeling."

Having both love and patience for the children is the most important thing, McBroom said, if you can have both then it makes everything worthwhile.

"Every year it's a new bunch, and you get to love them," Swan said. "At graduation you cry because they aren't babies anymore. You wonder what they're going to do when they get older or where they're going to be. It's the greatest thing."

For information on the program, contact Pat Knight, Alachua County Foster Grandparent Program Specialist at 264-6731.

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