Washtenaw United: Washtenaw County's Foster Grandparent Program provides mutually beneficial relationships
Sandy Bowers is the supervisor for Washtenaw County's Foster Grandparent program.
Annie Young is a senior volunteer for AmeriCorps and the Washtenaw County Foster Grandparents program.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And for those of us who had the good fortune to get to spend some meaningful time with our grandparents, well, we know how much we learned and how fun it could be. There are a lot of folks who could use that kind of help these days and don't often get it. Well, filling that void is why the Washtenaw County Foster Grandparent program exists. We're going to learn more about the program and get some personal insights into the relationships it helps create today. We have two guests with us. Sandy Bowers is the Foster Grandparents program supervisor. And I thank you so much for coming in today.
Sandy Bowers: Thank you for inviting us.
David Fair: And Annie Young is an AmeriCorps seniors foster grandparent volunteer. And, Annie, I'm so glad you could be here today, too.
Annie Young: Thank you so much for inviting me.
David Fair: Sandy, I was aware the program had been around for a while, but I was a bit surprised to learn it's over 55 years old. Congratulations on being one of the longest serving programs like this anywhere in the state of Michigan.
Sandy Bowers: Well, thank you. We're proud of that.
David Fair: Why did you choose to put your professional efforts into this volunteer-based program?
Sandy Bowers: The program is pretty much a culmination of everything I really want to do with my life. It's serving people. It's working with older adults. And it's helping children.
David Fair: And, Annie, what led you to become a volunteer?
Annie Young: I love children. And I heard about the program from my sister, from my neighbor. So, I was hesitant at first. I said, "Well, I don't know whether I'll be able to do it." But once I came and got on board, I wouldn't want to do anything else but this.
David Fair: Sandy, I'd like you to take in a moment and explain exactly how the Foster Grandparents program works.
Sandy Bowers: So, as you mentioned, it is an AmeriCorps seniors program, and it's sponsored through Washtenaw County. And we have partnerships with different entities throughout the county, mostly schools, school districts. And we recruit volunteers, seniors 55 and older, to participate in our program. Once someone joins our program, we train them, we work with them, we find out what their talents are and what kind of interests they have. And then we match them with one of our site partners. All of our volunteers do work with children, which is why we're called Foster Grandparents. And once they're placed, all of our volunteers volunteer about 20 hours a week. They're placed in a classroom with a teacher, who is their supervisor, and that teacher designates which children would benefit most from having that extra support of an older adult there consistently to give them social, emotional and academic assistance as needed.
David Fair: And, Annie, after your training and you got into a classroom, what did you find was most rewarding about sitting and working with both the teachers and the children?
Annie Young: Dealing with the children. They're so loving. And it's just like you treat them as they're your own grandkids. So, once I got into the classroom, I was just stunned of the love that I could give them and that they gave me. So, the teacher instructed me what to do, and I was pleased with that. And I just love it. I wouldn't want to do anything else.
David Fair: I think that speaks volumes to the kind of relationships that can be created and for reciprocal benefit. This is Washtenaw United on 89 one WEMU, and we're talking about the Washtenaw County Foster Grandparent program with Sandy Bowers and Annie Young. Sandy is a program supervisor. Annie is a foster grandparent volunteer. And, sandy, how many volunteers are there? And how many children get to benefit from the program?
Sandy Bowers: Well, right now, we have about 50-plus. We have spots for a few more. The grandparents work with all of the children in their classrooms. So, you know, typically, a classroom has 20 to 30 kids. Annie was just telling me she has 28 in her classroom this year. But they do specifically work with, you know, one or two, three or four kids who have specific needs that the grandparent might target throughout the day, throughout the week, giving specific instruction or specific attention to. But I would say that they work with everybody in the class and all of the children benefit from that intergenerational experience of having an older adult there to help them.
David Fair: You know, Sandy, you mentioned that this is a program for seniors 55 and older, and a lot of folks of that age group are on fixed incomes. Do you not only help the children through this program, but help the volunteers themselves in some way that allows them to sustain a 20-hour work schedule?
Sandy Bowers: We do. And we're really proud of the fact that our program is unique in that way. Volunteers who are in our program do receive a stipend. It's $4 an hour. It's not meant to be a job, but it does compensate them for their efforts in volunteering. It's non-taxed, and it's not considered an income, so it does not interfere with any other benefits they might receive. They also receive a daily allowance for meals of $6. And we help with transportation, which is an issue for many older adults who find themselves without transportation. And so, we help them with public transportation. We help with A-Ride services. We pay for all of that. So, it does give them that opportunity to get to where they need to be without relying on someone else to drive them. We also give them other benefits. We have, as Annie mentioned, training. We have a recognition event once a year, which is a a lovely event where we celebrate their efforts and what they do in the community. The teachers are invited. And we just really applaud what goes on in the classroom with our grandparents.
David Fair: And through this program, Annie, have you been able to also create relationships with other foster grandparents that is of mutual benefit?
Annie Young: Of course, yes. We meet once a month. And then, we talk on the phone about different things. We're like a family, and we share, you know, the different experiences that we have and we talk about them and we're just one unique family.
David Fair: So, Annie, take me into the classroom for a moment. You volunteered. You've had your training. And you go in, and you've been designated to a host teacher. And you get to sit with the kids and start to learn about who they are and what some of the academic issues might be. What is your relationship? How do you develop the relationship with the children that will ultimately help them get to where they need to be in that particular grade level?
Annie Young: Well, first, when I go into the classroom, I talk to the teacher, and I asked her what would she like for me to do with a particular child. And then, she gave me guidelines for that. But what I do every morning when I go in, I greet them with, "Hello, how are you doing?" And then, some of them we do a lot of clap with our hands, you know, just to make them feel that they're at home. We give them breakfast. I tell them breakfast is ready, and if they need their milk open, I do that. But I let them know that I'm there all the time for them if they need help with writing their ABCs or reading, I'm there for them. And I get up, and I walk around the classroom. They see what I can do to help each individual. And you just got to let them know that you care and that you're there for them.
David Fair: Do they actually call you Grandma?
Annie Young: They do. They do. And I love it, too.
David Fair: I love that, too. Our Washtenaw United conversation with Annie Young and Sandy Bowers from the Washtenaw County Foster Grandparents program continues on 89 one WEMU. And, Sandy, I'm interested. Do you target where you place volunteers and how they are placed? We're dealing with so many inequities, not only educational but racial and income inequities as well. And I'm wondering if the program is targeted to addressing those issues by how you place people.
Sandy Bowers: That's a great question. We have partnerships, as I mentioned earlier, with school districts. And so, our biggest impact is currently in Ypsilanti. We're in all of the Ypsilanti schools other than the high school at this point. And we kind of just like word-of-mouth, really. Once a teacher has a grandparent and they start telling other teachers about their grandparent, that kind of spreads the word. So, we have a really big impact in quite a few of the schools in Ypsilanti. We're also in some charter schools and some daycare centers and Head Start programs. So, we really feel that our grandparents are able to, you know, serve right where they live. And so, they're really helping in their community and helping the children that are their community.
David Fair: You mentioned that you are always looking for new volunteers, but are you also looking for districts and teachers that want to serve as a host?
Sandy Bowers: We are. But, as I mentioned, we try to place our grandparents near to where they live. So, sometimes, I do get an interested organization, and we may not have any grandparents who are eligible because of income guidelines in those areas. But we're more than happy to try to make a connection anywhere that someone is interested in our program.
David Fair: Annie, what would you say to someone who is considering becoming a foster grandparent and hasn't quite made the decision whether or not it's worth the time?
Annie Young: What I would do, I would encourage them to come aboard and to see how things work, because, once they get in the classroom, they're not gonna want to leave. And once they go to our meetings, wants the money, and sees what a big loving family we are and how we share different information and how we learn so much more about the kids in the classroom that they won't want to leave. I encourage anyone that is willing to come on board to come aboard and see how things work, because the kids really need them. A lot of them don't even have grandparents.
David Fair: Well, I think that's word to the wise. I thank you both for taking time to be here today and to share your stories with us. I appreciate it.
Sandy Bowers: Of course. Thank you for having us.
Annie Young: Thank you so much.
David Fair: That is Sandy Bowers and Annie Young. Sandy is supervisor for the Washtenaw County Foster Grandparents program. And Annie is an AmeriCorps foster grandparent volunteer. For more information on the program and our Washtenaw United guests, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Washtenaw United is produced in partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County and presented every Monday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.
Washtenaw County’s Foster Grandparent Program is offered by the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED), a community partner of United Way of Washtenaw County.
For more than four years, UWWC and OCED have partnered to increase the financial stability of Washtenaw County people with low to moderate incomes. OCED is a past funder of UWWC’s financial coaching and free tax preparation programs.
In the past, OCED and UWWC together launched the Washtenaw Financial Stability Coalition, which provides a space for human service organizations and local financial institutions to learn, share information and develop strategies for increasing financial wellbeing of people in Washtenaw County.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, UWWC and the Office of Community and Economic Development explored how government and the community would best respond to the rising unemployment rates in Washtenaw County at the time.
The OCED also received funding through UWWC’s COVID Relief Fund.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
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