It never hurts to have an extra grandparent around. That’s the thought behind the AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program at United Way of Northwest Vermont which provides an opportunity for adults aged 55 and older to remain engaged in their community by helping children. The program is a win-win for seniors and the kids they mentor.
According to Director of Marketing & Communications, Nicole Haley, the Foster Grandparent Program (FGP) is unique because it has intergenerational and community benefits. “Many of our Foster Grandparent volunteers are retired and may have lost some of the community ties they once had and feel socially isolated,” she said. “Becoming a Foster Grandparent gives older adults an opportunity to remain engaged in their community and to share their talent, expertise and compassion with young children.”
Foster Grandparent volunteers have been serving as tutors, mentors, and friends to children for over four decades. They visit preschools, elementary schools, youth facilities and other locations, working one-on-one or in small groups with children with exceptional needs while earning supplemental income. During the 2022-23 school year, 25 Vermont seniors in the tri-county region took part in the program. Volunteers receive a stipend of four dollars an hour plus transportation costs. The income eligible guideline to receive the stipend is for persons up to 200 percent of the poverty line. It is not considered income, which means it isn’t taxed and won’t affect any programs or services the volunteer receives. Its purpose is to alleviate any monetary barrier which might keep an older adult from volunteering.
United Way believes that making a difference in the life of a child has mental health benefits for both the volunteers and the young children who need extra support and attention. Additionally, the program helps local schools because teachers who are already stretched thin can rely on Foster Grandparent volunteers so that all children get what they need to be successful in school. Lastly, the program provides benefits for families and the larger community when young children develop trusting, caring relationships with supportive adults.
Jane Berry, a retiree, has thoroughly enjoyed working as a Foster Grandparent. She has spent over a decade in the kindergarten classroom at St. Albans Town Educational Center, helping kids with reading and math but also giving hugs and encouragement to those in need of an emotional boost. She has had the joy of watching a child whose family was in crisis become a successful high school student. “Being able to help kids when they need to be held and being able to be with the kids that might need a hug or a smile is basically my favorite part,” she said.
The Northwest Vermont FGP covers Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle Counties. Although Vermont ranks high on national indicators of health and well-being, these numbers mask a more complicated reality. Employment rates are relatively high, but wages in the region are below national averages which, when combined with an extremely high cost of living, creates persistent pockets of poverty across the state. According to the 2023 World Population Review rankings, Vermont is the 10th most expensive state in the country, with an overall cost index 17% higher than the U.S. average.
Childhood poverty continues to play a role across the state in educational outcomes. Vermont Agency of Education findings for the school year 2019-2020 indicate that 32,397 children were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals based on household income, translating to 44% of all children. Across the communities served by the Northwest Vermont FGP, the percentage of children who qualify for free school meals ranges as high as 98% in some districts.
United Way notes that educational success can create a ladder out of poverty and believes that too many Vermont children face challenges that undermine their ability to engage in learning and succeed in school. Many of the children assigned to FGP volunteers are from families experiencing financial instability, low income, or generational poverty. The program serves children of incarcerated parents, children in foster care, children who have suffered from abuse or neglect, children with learning, physical, or emotional disabilities, children of military/veteran families, and children from families disengaged from the school system. Foster Grandparent volunteers contribute a crucial piece of educational and social support that these children desperately need to reach their full potential.
United Way believes that childcare centers, preschools, schools, and other agencies are working hard to help all children in our community achieve their potential, but they may have limited resources. Their capacity to serve children is enhanced through engaged Foster Grandparent volunteers who provide a strong, consistent dose of support, mentoring, and tutoring for children in need.
Trezanra Robertson, Northwest Vermont FGP Manager, is proud of the program she runs. “Foster Grandparent volunteers have so much to offer our community,” she said. “They inspire me with their dedication and commitment to making a difference in the lives of local children. At the same time, our volunteers consistently tell us that what they get out of volunteering is so much more than what they give. They look forward to seeing the children just as much as the children look forward to seeing them.”
Robertson believes that entering school ready to learn sets the stage for school engagement and learning success in the early years and beyond. Children who enter school with less language, literacy, social, and other skills are at greater risk of falling behind, becoming disengaged, and eventually dropping out. Mobilizing the power of FGP volunteers in early care settings to help children who have been identified as needing additional support to develop social-emotional, cognitive, and pre-literacy skills is seen as critical to helping them make a strong start and achieve their potential in school.
“Foster Grandparents provide local children with mentoring, tutoring, social and emotional support, and a warm loving heart,” said Robertson. “Sometimes we work with children who don’t have that type of support system at home, but they know going into the school that grandma or grandpa is going to be there. That can make a huge difference in a child’s life.”
For more information contact Trezanra Robertson, AmeriCorps Seniors, Northwest Vermont FGP Manager, firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-861-7823. You can also visit Unitedwaynwvt.org/foster-grandparents.
Phyl Newbeck writes for a wide variety of Vermont newspapers and magazines. She is the author of Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving.