Wanted: Foster Grandparents to help in schools

By The Active Age | May 1, 2024

Grandma Rita

ANDOVER — The Foster Grandparent Program needs a lot more people like Rita Grimes. 

Grimes spends several hours each day at Sunflower Elementary School helping kindergarteners with their letters, science projects and just generally being an encouraging older figure. A grandparent, in other words.

“I try to show the kids, even in kindergarten, about being kind and thoughtful and courteous to people,” Grimes, a retired interior remodeler, said. “I teach the kids ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, ma’am.’ A lot of kids don’t get that anymore.”

They call her “Grandma Rita.”

The program has operated in Butler, Harvey, Cowley, Reno and Marion counties since 1965. (There’s a similar program in Sedgwick County run by Catholic Charities) It places participants, who must be at least 55 years old, in schools for at least 15 hours a week to help elementary school teachers and their young pupils. In return, participants receive mileage, meal reimbursement and small hourly stipend. It is designed not to interfere with existing low-income benefits, so that the program is accessible and inclusive.

Grandma Priscilla

The COVID-19 depleted the ranks of Foster Grandparents, said Elizabeth Pfieifer of the Butler County Department on Aging, who manages the program. Currently, she has 21 participants serving in nine schools. She could use 60.

Grimes, who had no prior experience teaching, said she instead relies on her background as an “old-fashioned grandma.” She helps teachers with about 55 kindergarteners in the school.

“I mainly work with writing — teaching kids how to write their letters, make the letters into words and words into sentences. I want to them to write the letters right.”

She’ll also pitch in with science projects such as chick-hatching experiment underway in April. Then there’s the subtle molding of behavior and socialization so necessary at the beginning of a child’s school career.

“It’s cute to see them get there,” Grimes said.

Grimes said the Foster Grandparent program was reportedly the brainchild of President Lyndon Johnson, who “thought these two groups” — senior citizens and young children — “ought to get together. “

“It gets a person up and going so you’re not staying at home all day long,” she said. “It helps the kids. It helps the teachers. It’s been a good experience for me.”

For more information about the Foster Grandparent Program, call (316) 775-0500 or (800) 279-3655.