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Foster Grandparent program can help seniors help kids

Grade schools in some areas of the city need more volunteers age 60 or older.

Published May 27, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Foster grandparents often provide a special and unique service for area schools, but for the kids in some areas of St. Petersburg that service is dwindling.

"We have had a series of problems with the health of volunteers which has prohibited them from serving any longer, " said Nancy McWilliams, director of operations for Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay Inc.

"We currently have 25 (in St. Petersburg). We would like it closer to 50."

The Foster Grandparent program, which was started in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty, had its pilot program in the Tampa Bay area. McWilliams said they started with 24 volunteers, and now Tampa has more than 170.

Alphonsa Perry, 73, has been a volunteer for three years in St. Petersburg and volunteered this past year at Lakewood Elementary.

"I think it's a nice thing for seniors to do, to listen to those kids, " Perry said.

Perry cautioned that it takes patience to deal with the students, but he said it is also very important for men to volunteer.

"A lot of kids listen to a man quicker than the ladies, " Perry said. "Kids today are not like kids back in the day. It takes more patience."

Perry spends approximately 20-25 hours a week at his school volunteering with the second-graders, and McWilliams said 20 hours a week is the average time spent.

He said his activities include reading with the kids, helping them spell, walking to lunch with them and listening to them.

"They all seem to love me. It's hard to get rid of them, " Perry said with a laugh.

James Steen, principal at Campbell Park Elementary, said the seniors provide a valuable service.

"It's the presence of another adult in the classroom, " Steen said. "It's a great program for any school to bring in."

Lisa Smiler, director of programs for Seniors in Service, said the program benefits both the seniors and the young kids.

"This is one of the only programs where everyone wins, " Smiler said. "Many of these children don't know any elders."

Smiler said the program places the seniors in underperforming schools where they can be the most help.

Low income seniors can receive an hourly wage of about $2.65. McWilliams said the program also reimburses seniors for mileage or gets them a bus pass.

"Once they get involved, they absolutely love it, " McWilliams said.

She recalls asking their oldest volunteer, 91-year-old Mildred Brisker, if she planned on retiring from the program, "And she replied, 'No. What would my children do without me?' " McWilliams said. "Some of our volunteers are well into their 80s."

Volunteers must be at least 60 years of age and must go through a thorough background check.

"We want anyone who wants to help children, " Smiler said.

[Last modified May 26, 2007, 18:44:20]

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