Volunteer for Foster Grandparents helps preschoolers at Head Start preschool

Saturday, April 21, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
After moving to Columbia in September, Maxine Romm joined the Foster Grandparent Program, which places retired individuals in schools and youth centers to work with children. Romm volunteers at the Worley Street Head Start Center four days a week.

Editor's note: This is part of a special section on Columbia's kids. Read more here.

COLUMBIA – Child-sized tables and chairs and a few miniature plush couches fill the classroom at Worley Street Head Start. There's an arts and crafts corner, toy-filled shelves and a book section. The letters of the alphabet and handmade drawings cover one wall while pictures of preschoolers' smiling faces cover another.


* The program operates  on a federal grant through the Corporation for National and Community Service as part of Senior Corps.

* To be eligible, men and women have to be at least 55, retired, physically able and willing to serve children on a personal and regular basis.

* Volunteers must pass a physical exam and background check and go through an orientation and in-service training program. 

* Volunteers receive sick, annual and holiday leave, transportation reimbursement, accident and liability insurance, one meal a day when possible and a stipend of $2.65 an hour for an average 20 hours of service a week.

* Approximately 75 grandparents are active members of Columbia's Foster Grandparent Program. 

 Source: Foster Grandparent Program 


* Head Start is a federally funded program for children from low-income families. 

* Eligible children are between age three and five, and some services are also available to infants and toddlers.

*Children receive medical and dental care, healthy meals and snacks and play and learn in a safe setting. 

* Head Start programs are based in centers or schools for half-day or full-day services, family child care homes and/or children's homes.

* Over one million children are served by Head Start programs every year.

 Source: Head Start 

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About 16 to 20 children come to the center to be under the care of three teachers, a teaching aide and a Foster Grandparent Program volunteer. 

"Every now and then, someone calls me 'Grandma' or 'Grandma Maxine,' and that's good because that's what I am here," Maxine Romm said.

Romm, 76, is new to town, having just moved to Columbia from Los Angeles in September. She volunteers for the Foster Grandparent Program that places retired men and women ages 55 and older at preschools, elementary schools and youth centers to work with children.

Romm volunteers at the center four days a week from 8 a.m. until noon.

"I just treat all the children the same, and if they want a hug, they need it and I just dole it out," Romm said.

Being here gives her a chance to play with the children and receive affection as well as give it out, Romm said.

Her background includes earning a master's degree in education and teaching elementary school children.

Her last class in Massachusetts was 35 second-graders, and her experience has helped her handle children in a group situation, Romm said.

"I model good behavior. I don't discipline since I'm a non-threatening figure," Romm said. "I give a lot of hugs."

Serving as a foster grandparent gives her the opportunity to be an aide without all the work of planning a classroom, an arrangement that Romm considers the best possible situation in the education world.

"I'm supposed to always be a positive influence," Romm said, "I'm a safe person to come to. I'm a person who does not discipline them, which is another good thing about my job."

Volunteers have to be "physically, emotionally and mentally able to work with children zero to 21," Ann Gilchrist, Columbia's Foster Grandparent director, said.  "My philosophy is if the grandparent feels good about their lives, they will impart their nurturing to children."

If the children want to sit with her and have a book read to them, then that's what they want at that moment and she's happy to give it, Romm said.

When she gets ready to start reading, preschoolers clamor for her attention and wave their book choices at her.

"I read stories very dramatically, and that's fun to do," Romm said.

The center is a preschool and not a day care, and it focuses on social skills as well as teaching numbers and letters, Nicole Johnson, the supervisor of Worley Street Head Start, said. 

"We stress the importance of learning how to play safe together and have polite manners, and the motto here is: 'Be safe, be kind, be responsible,'" Romm said.

Romm's presence gives the children another adult for more one-on-one time, Johnson said.

"They get someone else to read to them and love on them,' she said.

Parents have to meet qualifications to get their children into the free program, and most often parents are single and working or going to school full time, Johnson said. 

Head Start employees holds parent conferences and meetings and conducts home visits so they can show parents what they can do at home and how they can advocate for their children if they have problems at school, Johnson said.

Near the classroom entrance is a wall covered with photos of the children with their parents.

Lee Johnson is a Head Start parent. Her son Konor, 4, has been part of the preschool all year.

With a 1-year-old and newborn at home, Head Start gives Konor a chance to improve academically and build relationships,and he has made tremendous progress, Lee Johnson said.

"He comes home singing songs, and I come in here and ask what song it is so we can sing together," Lee Johnson said.

Head Start hosts events such as pajama parties for the children and activities such as picnics, luncheons and carnivals for the community at large.

"It's just not the kids that go here," Lee Johnson said. "It's everybody."

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