Three days a week for the past five years, Ms. Lillie Preston boards the senior transportation bus going to the local Head Start Center in Dekalb County, Georgia. When she arrives, she’s surrounded by 3 and 4 year olds, who view Ms. Preston as something of a legend, as someone who emanates love, joy and comfort. They see her as their grandma.
At nearly 70 years of age, Ms. Preston (pictured left) spends her days helping out around the classroom – reading, helping out during craft time, preparing snacks. At nap time, she sits next to the children who are tired but don’t want to lie down and talks softly, telling them stories until they fall asleep. She seems to have an innate sense for the children who need a little bit of extra attention, and slowly, over the course of the year, brings them out of their shell.
It is people like Ms. Preston – kind, warm and positive people – who make the Foster Grandparent program at Easterseals such a treasure in the community.
Started by Congress as part of the Senior Corps in 1965 and implemented by Easterseals in 2011, the program aims to match up seniors over the age of 55 with children who have special needs. The foster grandparents then help with anything from soothing children who have behavioral issues, to attending therapy sessions.
The Foster Grandparent program is just one of the many Easterseals programs for older adults to sustain integration in their communities, and promote wellness, independence and connectivity.
“We don’t exclude anyone from the program,” Jennifer Wilson, project director of the Easterseals Foster Grandparent program, said. “Our view is, you have something to bring to the table. It’s not just academic, it’s emotional as well.”
To become a foster grandparent, you must be at least 55 years of age, you must pass background checks and you cannot be active in the work force. Once in the program, volunteers receive benefits including a stipend for their service. There are also benefits that are immeasurable for the volunteers.
“My doctor thinks this is the best thing since sliced bread,” Ms. Preston said. “I get up, I get dressed, I go out and mingle with the people. It’s exercise.”
She added that the stipend gives her the extra money to go out and do things that she might not be able to do otherwise, like attend concerts, peruse yard sales and explore flea markets.
Likewise, the children matched with foster grandparents are affected in positive ways by their grandparents.
Ms. Wilson shared one such story of a “grandma” named Ms. Catherine and her foster grandchild, a young boy with autism.
“Every day he would run to her. Her presence was so calming for him,” she said. “He didn’t want to make a move without her being there.”
Ms. Preston also pays special attention to the children in her class whom she knows need the care that comes from a grandparent. When she noticed one boy who needed a bit more attention, she took him to the circus.
Ms. Preston said she hopes every child she has worked with will remember the relationship they built growing up.
“Most of the ‘grandchildren’ have young grandparents who may not be interested in the role of grandparent, or grandparents who don’t live close by. [Some don’t] have any grandparents,” said Ms. Wilson. “To have someone give [the kids] one-one-one attention… [they] love it.”
Ms. Preston encourages any senior eligible for the program to get involved.
“I hope I’ll be able to stay in it until I’m 100 years old!” she chuckled.
The Foster Grandparent Program is just one way Easterseals serves older adults. Find out more about our programs for seniors.
Connect with your local Easterseals to learn more about how you can get involved in your community.