ROCK FALLS – When U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos stopped by Lisa Wolber’s kindergarten class at Dillon Elementary School on Monday, the kids were busy learning how to write the letters R and T.
In the corner, foster grandparent Mary Garcia worked with two students who needed just a little more one-on-one instruction.
“Can you make a capital R?” she asked Lucian.
Bashfully, he shook his head. Bustos stepped in.
“First you make a vertical line, next you make a hump on that line, and then a crooked leg,” she said, guiding his hand.
The Democratic legislator was visiting the school to watch the Senior Corps Foster Grandparent Program – which is in danger of losing its federal funding – at work.
Launched in 1965, the program uses volunteers 55 and older to provide one-on-one mentoring, nurturing, and support to children with special or exceptional needs, or who are at an academic, social, or financial disadvantage.
“It’s so important to have our kids ready for school, and to bring them up to speed if they aren’t,” Bustos said. “A program like this does a lot of good.”
The program not only helps kids, but the seniors benefit, too. It gets them more involved in the community, helps them build new relationships, and gives them a sense of purpose by making a difference in students lives.
At Dillon, eight “grandparents” help students with reading, math and writing throughout the day.
One, Midge Murphy, 84, joined the program after retiring from Lawrence Brothers Manufacturing 20 years ago.
“I’m not the kind to stay home,” said Murphy, who also volunteers at CGH Medical Center. “I really am addicted to reading with the kids.
“I also get into their personal lives and help them any way I can,” she told Bustos.
The proposed federal fiscal year 2019 budget eliminates the Corporation for National and Community Service, the parent organization of AmeriCorps State and National, VISTA and National Civilian Community Corps programs, and its Senior Corps RSVP, Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent programs. All pay volunteers a stipend for their services.
For those programs to continue, funding would have to come from private and nonprofit sectors.
Bustos does not approve.
“I call anything extra that helps students in school a success,” she said.
Principal Roy Caulkins stressed the importance of his foster grandparents, who “provide a one-to-one instruction when teachers can’t afford to,” as well as extra set of eyes and ears, for added school security, he told Bustos.
“A teacher has to instruct 20 other students. That’s where the grandparents step in when extra help is needed,” Caulkins said. “For example, it’s much easier for a student who has trouble reading in front of others to go off to the side and read to a grandparent.”
Help from the volunteers saves the school about $17,000 in education costs per grandparent, or $136,000 in all, he added.
“That’s a great return on investment for our schools,” Bustos said.
Bustos, D-Moline, is seeking a fourth term in the 17th Congressional District, which includes Whiteside and Carroll counties. Her only opponent on Nov. 6 is William “Bill” Fawell of Galena, who has lost of the support of both the state and local Republican Party.
HOW TO HELP
Tri-County Opportunities Council in Rock Falls operates the Foster Grandparent Program which is funded by the Corporation for National and Community Services.
Volunteers provide services to children in local schools, Head Start, and Early Head Start programs, area preschools and child care centers. In addition to the regular volunteer duties, they also participate in activities for three national days of service: 9/11 Day of Remembrance, Veterans Day, and Martin Luther King Day of Service.
Foster Grandparents work one-on-one or in small groups, helping children with academics, social skills, or other special needs.
They must be 55 or older, federal income guidelines, agree to a background check, and commit to volunteering a minimum of 15 hours per week. They receive a small stipend for their services, transportation or transportation reimbursement, a noon meal when volunteering, and paid days off.
To volunteer or for more information, visit tcochelps.org or contact at Susie Welch at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-625-7830, ext. 40.