Tucked into a corner in the library at Menlo Park Elementary, Audrey Taylor helps second grader Sabrin practice her handwriting.
“Make sure you get the legs of the ‘H’ straight,” Taylor tells her. “If you can write a row of perfect letters for me I’ll give you a sticker!”
Taylor isn’t a teacher by training, but she’s used to working in a classroom. For the past six years, she’s been participating in Multnomah County’s Foster Grandparent program.
Foster grandparents are volunteers 55 years and older who serve in local schools, hospitals, daycare facilities or Head Start centers. For 15 to 40 hours a week, the volunteers mentor children and teenagers and provide one-on-one tutoring. Many foster grandparents care for premature infants, children with disabilities or children who have experienced abuse or neglect.
“Kids see me in the hall and say, ‘Hi Grandma!,’ Taylor says. “I’m everybody’s grandma—I’m going to be right here for them.”
Taylor is one of just 38 foster grandparents in the Multnomah County program. In exchange for their time, the volunteers are awarded a small stipend, regular trainings, and the pride of knowing they’re making a difference in children’s lives.
The process is simple. When a volunteer completes the application, which includes a background check, the program assigns them to a school. Then the program works with teachers to identify students in need of extra support. Often times, those students might be experiencing obstacles, like homelessness. Or maybe a parent is deployed overseas.
“The Foster Grandparent program is an opportunity for older adults to connect with their community and be a direct, positive influence in kids’ lives,” says Khela Singer, who manages the Department of County Human Services program. “Kids light up when they get to spend time with their grandparents, and we notice an increase in school attendance and better outcomes when kids have an opportunity to engage with the volunteers.”
Volunteer grandma Taylor is a natural helper. Her own mother was a certified nursing assistant at an adult care facility. When she was a kid, she remembers once walking a few blocks from her house in northeast Portland to visit the nursing home while her mother was at work. She was inspired by the way her mother cared for the residents, and followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a CNA, herself.
She stayed in the job her entire working life until cancer stopped her in her tracks. With chemotherapy, she recovered, but her old job became too physically demanding.. Her doctor recommended doing something to keep her mind and body active, and that’s when she found out about the Foster Grandparent program.
“So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll sign up and do it,” she says. She hasn’t left the classroom since.
Even though Taylor is a great-grandmother, herself, she still finds time to visit the kids at school. Every day, she gets up and fixes herself some coffee so she can be at the school by the time class starts at 8 a.m. She doesn’t leave school until the final bell rings.
Throughout the day, she pays close attention to four students she’s assigned to care for. If someone falls behind, she helps them catch up on homework. By giving one-on-one attention to several students during the entire school day, Taylor is able to help kids in a way that a teacher can’t. And at the same time, she makes it easier for the teachers to do their jobs.
“I learn from the kids,” she says. “They ask me questions I haven’t really thought of. When I come through the school doors, I feel good. I feel happy. My husband jokes, ‘Do you know what retirement is?’”
Taylor’s experience is similar to many of the volunteers, who choose to spend a large portion of their lives giving back to their community. Many volunteers stay with the program for years. One foster grandparent actually mentored children at the same Multnomah County school for 30 years.
By all accounts, the program is a huge success. But it needs more volunteers. Right now, their goal is to have 50 volunteers. The more volunteers there are, the more classrooms they’re in, and the more kids that are getting one on one attention.
“You gain so much more out of it than you give,” Singer says. “Not only do you get to make an amazing impact on a child’s life, but you get to have connection with a lot of people and get to be a role model that children will remember for the rest of their lives.”
And that’s what motivates Taylor. She says nothing makes her happier than seeing her kids grow up. Each year that goes by, Taylor says, she knows she’s having an impact on future generations.
“I was recently at the store and I saw some of the kids I mentored years ago,” Taylor says. “They’re sixth graders now. And sometimes I walk around in the community and randomly hear, ‘Hi Grandma Audrey!’ It’s so important for our kids to have a mentor. We all need a role model that can lead us in the right direction.”
Do you know someone who would be a good fit for the Foster Grandparent program? Please read this letter and complete an application to start the process. Contact the program coordinator at 503-988-6717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.