COLUMBIA – Betty Flanagan, 71, sat quietly watching one of the little girls at Nora Stewart Nursery color a kite. The girl struggled to color inside the lines and started to cry as she watched the other children succeed.
“I know you’re smart,” Flanagan said to her softly. “You can do it. The teachers told me how smart you are.”
She calmly helped the child with her crayon, guiding her as she shaded in the picture. Slowly Flanagan let the girl take over, and soon enough she was finishing her work and proudly showing it to the other children.
Flanagan volunteers at Nora Stewart Nursery from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day as part of the Foster Grandparent Program.
Thanks to a new initiative by the Obama administration, by this time next year Flanagan should be seeing an increase in the hourly stipend she receives through the program.
In April, President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which will provide some much needed changes, said mid-Missouri Foster Grandparent Director Ann Gilchrist.
Through the act, the Foster Grandparent Program will be able to increase the hourly stipend that grandparents receive, as well as lower the age of eligibility to 55.
“The new age limit will greatly benefit the program,” Gilchrist said, “because a younger person can volunteer more hours and has more flexibility.”
The act also provided for scholarships of up to $1,000 for grandparents who volunteer 350 hours of service.
The Foster Grandparent Program, launched by President Kennedy as part of Senior Corps, promotes interaction with children. As part of the program, men and women older than 60 spend 15 to 40 hours a week on youth programs such as Head Start, public and private schools, daycare centers, state-supported facilities and home settings.
Through her involvement in the program, Flanagan helps the teachers by watching the children, aiding them with crafts and activities, helping them learn. She has been volunteering at Nora Stewart for 11 years and knows all the children by name.
The kids, who call her “Grandma Betty,” are eager to spend time with her, rushing to sit in the chairs beside her as they color their kites.
“I love being in their company,” she said. “As a retiree, I have the time to get involved with the children. They love to talk and they always want someone to talk to, and I’m a good candidate to listen to them.”
In order to be eligible to be a foster grandparent, senior citizens must be retired, physically able, and available to serve on a regular basis. Some volunteers, based on income, receive a stipend of $2.65 an hour, as well as transportation, accident and liability insurance, and annual holiday leave.
Not mentioned anywhere is the personal care foster grandparents receive from Gilchrist, who has been involved in the program for 25 years. She maintains a relationship with each of the current 73 grandparents.
When a grandparent experiences problems with their insurance, utilities or health payments, they call Gilchrist, who helps them take care of it.
For example, Gilchrist sat in her office on a Thursday afternoon calming a grandparent who, after accidentally sending the wrong amount to the gas company, was concerned that her utilities would be turned off.
“Quit worryin’,” Gilchrist said, telling the woman she would take care of the problem.
She calls this a “secondary support system to help with life struggles.”
Besides this personal care, volunteers are drawn to the program because of the lack of stress it gives, Gilchrist explained. Unlike a normal job, volunteers can call in when their hip is bothering them, for example, or when they don’t feel well, and they will not be expected to work that day.
Gail Schuster, director of the Trinity Lutheran Learning Center, has received seniors from the Foster Grandparent Program for three years. She currently has help from two grandmothers in the nursery and day care center.
Schuster said the help has been an asset to their program and that the helpers can step into extra positions they would otherwise not be able to fill. She also said the program seems to be a success for the seniors.
Although Gilchrist could not guarantee when the stipend increase would be implemented, she expressed hope that it could happen by October.
That the most important portion of the act, however, is to“cement the validity of the program,” she said. It has now been guaranteed until at least 2012.
Under the Bush administration, the Foster Grandparent Program was expected to be wiped out. Under Obama, Gilchrist said, the program has been “totally turned around.”
Flanagan said she would continue to be a foster grandparent whether change takes place or not. As far as she's concerned, "this program’s the best thing since sliced bread.”