PENINSULA — The Foster Grandparent Program has connected the Peninsula’s youngest generations to its oldest for decades. As schools have grown, new volunteer grandparents have been hard to find.
The Foster Grandparent Program, funded by federal grants, pairs retired community members with kids in their classrooms. The program aims to create extra support for students as well as offer a stipend to retired people living on a limited income, said Foster Grandparent Coordinator Kate McMurry.
“We could always use more, especially now that we have schools asking for the volunteers all the time and really need them for their extra programs,” McMurry said.
New volunteers are rare. Within the team of five foster grandparents on the Peninsula, the newest grandma began volunteering in October. Before that, it had been two and a half years since the program grew.
Though the team is small, it’s committed.
“We have volunteers who continue until they can’t anymore, whether that’s for five, 10 or 11 years,” McMurry said. “They just keep going.”
Doctors deemed Deanna Quillen legally blind in 2006 after she lost her peripheral vision to glaucoma and optical rosacea. By 58 years old, Quillen felt unemployable.
“I wasn’t ready for retirement yet,” Quillen, now 69, said. “When I filled out paperwork for Social Security, the fella asked me what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Quillen worked as the social director for a ski club. Her life in Portland was hosting dinners, touring nightclubs and organizing bus trips to wine festivals. When she had to reshape her life, she looked for a quiet town on the beach. She picked Ocean Park.
“I can’t believe that was 11 years ago,” Quillen said. “I’ve become a part of a close community, where I know I can help others and get support as my vision gets worse.”
Quillen found a new type of home when she became “Grandma Dee” on the Peninsula.
In Ocean Park Elementary classrooms, she’s learned how to help students pick out books in the library for their reading level. She said the students also learned how to interact with someone with a disability.
“They found out why it’s important to push their chairs in and pick up stuff off the floor for me,” she said, adding that her first days volunteering led to a lot of bumps and bruises.
She spends most of her 16 hours of service a week listening to students read out loud and making sure they know the words they’re using.
Quillen said for some kids, she’s been one of their few interactions with an adult outside of their family or their teachers.
“There was a need for a Grandma Dee,” she said. “For whatever reason, some kids don’t have access to their grandparents or parents. They have an extra person in their life and I have learned so much as grandma for them.”
Volunteers for foster grandparents often come in generational waves, McMurry said. People entering retirement pull their friends into the program, then enrollment can stagnate until another generation of retirees rolls in, she said.
There are 279 Foster Grandparents statewide. Participants have to be 55 and older and those living at 200 percent of the poverty level receive a tax-free, hourly stipend of just less than $3.
“This program is to target people at risk — kids and adults,” McMurry said.
At 67 years old, Pat Foust was ready to leave her 20-year-long career in insurance, but she couldn’t afford to retire.
“It takes a lot to be retired and social security doesn’t do it,” Foust said.
She wanted to leave the business world, but didn’t want to begin a new career. When Foust heard about becoming a Foster Grandparent, it made sense — kids had been her life. Foust had her first child at 20 years old, and three more kids followed. She has 17 grandkids and a growing number of great grandkids.
Foust began working as a foster grandparent 10 years ago. She’s spent her retirement years teaching the basics, like how to use utensils, clean up toys and wash hands. She’s learned how to get kids to drink their milk, how to sew a dress for the beloved class hamster and how to sit next to a kid if they’re sad but don’t want to talk.
“I’m almost (now) 80 and I’m learning what makes little kids tick,” she said. “I’ll work till 90 if I haven’t lost my mind.”