County's foster grandparents back to helping students after shutdown


Principal Lawson Brown Jr. speaks with a foster grandparent at Duval Elementary School for nine years, Barbara Perry, 72, known as Grandma Perry to the first-graders she assists in Ashley Gotay's first-grade classroom at Duval Elementary School in Gainesville on Monday.

Erica Brough/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 10:50 a.m.

After two weeks in limbo during the federal government shutdown, the volunteers who make up Alachua County's Foster Grandparent Program on Monday rejoined the children they work with at local schools and day care centers.

The Foster Grandparent Program was frozen at the end of the first week of October because the county couldn't draw down grant money for it because of the government shutdown. The program's low-income volunteers, who are 55 or older, spend 15 to 40 hours each week working with children and receive a stipend of $2.65 an hour for their service.

Ninety-two volunteers were temporarily laid off because of the shutdown.

When it ended and furloughed federal employees returned to work on Thursday, County Manager Betty Baker said she was still unsure if government funding for the program would be restored. She learned Friday that it would, and county staff informed the foster grandparents they could resume volunteering on Monday.

Three county staffers who were reassigned temporarily to CHOICES, a program that helps uninsured but employed residents access health services, also were brought back into the Foster Grandparent program.

Louise Gordon, a 75-year-old Hawthorne resident who has been a foster grandparent for going on seven years, volunteers at a day care but couldn't go during the shutdown. She said she worried about the children because they need mentors.

Not being able to volunteer also meant losing the $2.65 an hour stipend. That was difficult because the stipend, although small, makes a difference given how tough times are right now, Gordon said.

"I missed that change. Comes in handy," she said.

She resumed volunteering Monday and was happy to see the preschoolers she works with again after two weeks away.

"Oh, they were happy to see me as always. Every day they want to follow me home," she said. "They enjoy working with me, and I enjoy being with them."

Some foster grandparents couldn't bear to stay away when the program was frozen.

Duval Elementary School Principal Lawson Brown said several foster grandparents helped out at the school as regular volunteers during the shutdown.

"I was very surprised and impressed," he said. "They see it as a real job and not just community work."

Duval Elementary has around eight foster grandparents who nurture and provide academic support for students.

"They give the kids sort of a warm blanket of parenting," he said.

Barbara Perry, a 72-year-old foster grandparent who has volunteered at Duval for about nine years, was one of those who helped out during the shutdown as a regular volunteer.

There wasn't any warning when the program was frozen, and she couldn't leave the children, she said. A teacher can do only so much.

"A lot of them need it because they don't have that grandma structure at home sometimes," she said of the children she helps.

Perry volunteers in teacher Ashley Gotay's first-grade class four days a week. The children call her Grandma Perry or just Grandma.

She works closely with two children in the class through the program but assists all the students, as needed.

" ‘Cause everybody calls: ‘Grandma Perry, I need your help,' " she said. "Each child is the same in my eyesight because they all need help."

On Monday morning, Perry sat down with 6-year-olds Taleah Warren and D'avarion Bryant to read a book called "Animals Help." The children read along out loud, pausing when Perry asked questions.

"A camel can help," D'avarion read before turning the page. "A monkey can help."

What about a cow or a hen, Perry asked. How do they help?

Milk and eggs, the children told her.

"What did you learn from this book?" she asked after they finished the last page.

They went back over how a horse can be used for transportation and hens give people eggs.

Then D'avarion asked how a camel can help.

"A camel can be used as a mode of transportation," Perry told him.

Taleah, excited, clutched the book with one hand and waved the other. "And a monkey?" she asked.

Perry laughed a little. "Well, not necessarily," she said.

Then she told them: "I'm proud of you because you did this book for the first time."

With the book finished, the first-graders' attention began to wander. She told them, "Love you."

She said it twice more, finally drawing their attention.

"Love you, too," Taleah said and smiled.

"I love you all a whole bunch," Perry said, looking between them.

"We love you too," D'avarion told her.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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