The Foster Grandparent Program is a national program, which provides stipend volunteer opportunities to low-income citizens over 55 years of age. The Foster Grandparents are matched with children with special needs. Over 150 Grandparents serve at 65 different sites throughout El Paso County.
El Paso’s project is a model for community-based programming. The purpose of the program is to provide volunteer opportunities to low-income seniors to serve children with exceptional or special needs.
Foster Grandparent Program helps students at Hambric receive extra one-on-one help
If you happen to walk a particular hall at Jane A. Hambric School, you may notice a few first-graders calling out to "Grandma." It's not a particularly unusual thing, until you notice that an entire class is calling the same person "Grandma."
Olga Valenzuela is not the actual grandmother of all those students, but she is a volunteer of the Foster Grandparent Program. According to counselor Karina Cataldi, the project has been a success at Hambric for over ten years.
"I love this program," she says. "She really becomes a surrogate grandma. They become real attached to her and this really improves their learning."
Grandma Valenzuela says that for some reason, a grandma figure is more approachable to students.
"We've only been together a few weeks, but they are comfortable with me and I'm comfortable with them," she says. "They don't hesitate to come up to me and ask me things."
The Foster Grandparent Program is an endeavor of the City of El Paso's Community & Human Development Department, funded by the Corporation for National Service, the Texas Department on Aging and Disabilities (DADS) and the City of El Paso. Schools requesting a Foster Grandparent simply contact the Program to request a volunteer. The program then tries to locate a trained volunteer who lives in the school's area. Amy B. Rivera, a first grade teacher at Hambric, knew about the program and requested a Grandma for her class.
"Younger students want to make sure they are doing the work right," she says. "So I'll have about eight of them showing me their work or asking me questions all at the same time. Grandma helps with that. Some of the kids will go to her."
Grandma Valenzuela agrees with Rivera's assessment completely. She says it's very easy for her to help the children with their request.
"Sometimes they ask simple questions like 'What color should this be' or 'What's the next letter in this word,'" she says. "They just want reassurance."
And almost on cue, first grader Taylor Meno approached Grandma to benefit from that extra spelling help.
"Grandma helps us if we have trouble spelling words," she says. "She helps us to listen too."
But it is obvious the effect Grandma has on the entire class is more than academic, as witnessed by the number of hugs she received upon her departure from class. Foster Grandmas volunteer four hours a day.
"She's a great grandma," says first-grader Kimberly Rodriguez. "She helps us when we need help and she reads us books. She's so nice."
Grandma Valenzuela says that although it may seem like the children are the only ones benefiting from the program, she too is a beneficiary.
"I retired in 2003 and thought I was going to stay home and do lots of things around the house," she says. "I retired in May and was bored by August. So I enrolled in the Foster Grandparent Program and started in September of 2003. The kids keep you going. They tell me things that make me laugh every day."