First-grader Desiree Brown reads with Clyde Miller every day at F.E. Burleson Elementary School.
“He teaches me how to read vowels,” she said, looking up briefly at Miller and back down in deep concentration at her book.
Miller is one of three foster grandparents who are appointed to the school by the volunteer service organization, Community Action Partnership of North Alabama.
According to the Community Action website, the Foster Grandparents program is for seniors 55 and older. They are volunteers “recruited to serve in area schools, day care centers, Head Start and Even Start programs, boys and girls clubs, and other community agencies which serve children with disabilities. By sharing a lifetime of experience, they make immeasurable differences in many children’s lives throughout Morgan, Lawrence and Cullman counties.”
Community Action has seven foster grandparents in Hartselle — three at Burleson, three at Head Start and one at Crestline Elementary. In Morgan County, the agency has 53 volunteers, Senior Program Coordinator Cindy Moses said.
“When I have a volunteer, I call the school nearest to their home, no more than 15 miles driving distance from their home,” Moses said. “Most schools are more than willing to accept a foster grandparent to their classrooms.”
Students such as Desiree get extra one-on-one reading time with the foster grandparents each week. They read accelerated reading books and then take tests about the books on the computer together. Miller helps with kindergarten, first and second graders. Each foster grandparent at Burleson works about 20 hours a week. Since August, the students have collectively read 400 books just with Miller, he said.
Miller is in his second year with the program. One of his favorite books to read is “Five Silly Fishermen” by Roberta Edwards. “It brings laughter,” he said.
“(The students) light up when he walks in the room. They know he cares,” first-grade teacher Krista Blaxton said. “He has a great rapport with the children. He’s our family.”
“When you have teachers like this, they are fantastic. They make you feel like you’re wanted. They make me wish I was a teacher,” Miller said.
“They really deserve a spotlight,” second-grade teacher Dena Mayfield said of the foster grandparents who assist at F.E. Burleson. “We all see them as a role model with experience and patience.”
The foster grandparents are investing time with a student, which increases their reading skills, but also builds confidence, she said.
“We always say ‘stability equals ability.’ They’re another human being they can trust and count on,” Mayfield said.
It is the little victories with the students that make it all worthwhile, Janice Goodwin said.
“They get so excited when they catch hold of something,” she said. Goodwin is in her second year as a foster grandparent at F.E. Burleson.
“This started out as something to do, and turned into something I love,” Goodwin said. “To them we’re really ‘grandma’ and ‘grandpa.’ We just love it.”
“I have learned from them that they are very loving kids. Some need attention, some need support and encouragement and a lot of love,” Miller said. “Anyone could be doing the same thing, and we need more parents and grandparents to share their lives with them for the future. I become part of their family. I’m nothing special. I don’t have anything that is special. I just share my life with them, which thrills me to death.”
Community Action Partnership of North Alabama is a non-profit business “committed to reducing or eliminating the causes and consequences of poverty.” The organization offers Early Childhood Development services such as the Foster Grandparent program, Head Start and Early Head Start. The organization also offers services for emergency assistance, homeless, housing, volunteer development, non-profit training, energy conservation, independent living, IT consulting, family development and economic development. Visit its website at northalabamacommunities.org to find out more information.
Foster grandparents are required to go through an application process which includes finger printing, background checks through the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and FBI, and sex offender checks.
Foster grandparents also are required to pass a physical and receive pre-service training and ‘shadow’ an existing volunteer for at least 20 hours before they are placed in a classroom.
To learn more, call Tamisha Sales at 256-260-3142.
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