Grandma Judy read a story to a group of 4- and 5-year-olds, like she has done before at the Vine Street site of Day Nursery of Abilene.
This time, however, she was in one room and the youngsters were in another.
Grandma Judy, who is 82, set up her iPad to read “Giraffes Can’t Dance.” She held the book open for the kids to see and read the words. Just as she would do in person.
She saw them on her screen, and they saw her, gathered around their screen a few rooms down.
The retired childcare director for St. James UMC’s program was practicing.
“So Gerald was special after all,” she said. Gerald is a giraffe.
“He found music he could dance to.”
And when she was done, Grandma Judy told the kids, “You were good listeners. Bye!”
“Bye!” they replied.
Then, she walked to the classroom to surprise the kids. They rushed to her just inside the door, not having seen her in more than a year because of the pandemic.
“Why were you on the computer?” she was asked.
“I was playing with the computer so I can read from home or anywhere,” Grandma Judy answered.
Of course, being there in person was best. She was asked to read the story again, in person.
And she did.
How this all works
Judy Stevens is part of the Foster Grandparent Program that puts senior volunteers to “work” as role models, mentors and friends to children. It’s a program of Texas Health and Human Services.
The program is for men and women age 55 and older. Attending a gathering of 20 or so volunteers Wednesday morning were Valeta Gilchrest, 87, and Charles Anderson, 85.
This was their first gathering since March 2020. Senior residents of Abilene were particularly cautious during COVID-19.
But adding iPads to their lives will keep them connected in the future. For example, if a volunteer has surgery and cannot get out, he or she still can volunteer with an iPad.
“I wish we had these last year,” said Debra Young, the local Foster Grandparents Program volunteer coordinator.
She has 47 signed up and is cleared to add a dozen more.
Funding this program is an AmeriCorps grant. Other Texas cities have local sponsors but Abilene is one of eight programs overseen by the state. The program, which covers all 50 states and four countries, dates back to 1965. The local program was started in 1973, beginning at what then was called Abilene State School.
It would be more fully integrated into the community in later years.
Funding provided tablets and the means to teach volunteers how to use those.
Wednesday’s gathering was introductory. Find the HHS icon on the screen and touch. And you’re there.
Volunteers remotely can read to kids or quiz them on how well they know their numbers and ABCs.
Remote connection is especially beneficial to reach youths who are in a juvenile justice facility. For example, Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Complex in Brownwood. Youths age 10 to 18 are housed there.
It’s a chance for a “grandparent” to talk with these kids and mentor them. The youths may be more willing to talk to them than others, Young said.
The program works with a number of Abilene agencies, including Day Nursery, the YMCA, and Boys & Girls Club locations. It also connects with Anson and Aspermont ISDs, and local schools.
If a teenager needs a chess opponent, well, this group can provide a worthy adversary.
Perks of the ‘job’
Foster Grandparents Volunteer Program members are paid $3 per hour. That’s not nearly minimum wage, but it provides some income. Especially for volunteers who log 40 hours a week.
Based on hours regularly given, volunteers were paid by the state throughout the pandemic.
There also is insurance if a volunteer has a mishap traveling because of service.
Mileage also is paid to travel to volunteer destinations, or bus passes provided. Program volunteers have assisted at fishing events and, recently, at the Children’s Art & Literacy Festival.
Additionally, internet for the iPads will be provided.
The plan is to have volunteers ready to help when school begins in August.
Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer living in Taylor or a surrounding county can call 325-795-5703 or go to hhs.texas.gov/foster-grandparent.
Young said the motto once was “Changing the world, one child at a time.”
She has refined that to “Strengthening our communities, one generation to another.”
Greg Jaklewicz is editor of the Abilene Reporter-News and general columnist. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.