ROCK FALLS – Marjorie "Midge" Murphy has a loving family – of her own, and of hundreds of Dillon Elementary students, past and present, from 2 decades of being a foster grandparent.
“They see you in a store and say, ‘Oh look, there’s Grandma,’” Murphy said.
Murphy, 85, of Rock Falls, became a foster grandparent after she retired in 1998 as head of the customer service department at Lawrence Brothers Manufacturing.
When she retired, her late husband, Steve Murphy, worried how she would spend her time, because she likes to stay busy. He's the one who suggested she try volunteering as a foster grandparent.
“He said, I have a good place for you to go," Murphy said. His suggestion turned into a second career for Murphy, who's been volunteering as a foster grandparent long enough to watch three of the teachers she worked with retire.
After Steve died, "I had nothing to keep me at home, so I just continued.”
The first year she volunteered, she spent her Monday through Friday mentoring kindergarten students at Merrill School. She moved over to Dillon the following year, and never left.
“You just get addicted to the children, and I feel like they need someone who’s like a grandparent.”
Sometimes kids need a little help with reading and writing when they first start school, Murphy said. Teachers are busy and might not have that extra time to spend with a student, so that's when Murphy lends a hand.
Other times, she takes more of a supportive role, and just listens to the children.
She’s learned many “secrets,” about students and their parents, and they aren't always light-hearted.
“A teacher doesn’t have time to listen to them the way I can,” Murphy said. “Family life is not what it used to be, and a lot of times kids get emotional about that.”
Providing a "softer side to school" is what the foster grandparent program is all about, said Susie Welch, its director.
Murphy is "a remarkable woman" who builds special relationships with the children she mentors, Welch said. She's also is the "go-to" foster grandparent at Dillon, the person who always can answer the other foster grandparents' questions.
When she came down with a bad illness a few years back and was told to skip school because the flu was particularly bad that year, Murphy remained focused on one thing: getting well.
"She needed to get back to those kids. That’s what kept her going," Welch said.
Her volunteerism didn’t end when school let out on Friday afternoons. Until about a year ago, she spent every other Sunday helping out in CGH Medical Center’s gift shop.
"I just like being around people," Murphy said.
For now, though, she's on the DL: She injured herself a few months back and doesn't know if she'll be back to finish out the year.
"I know what greatness she does in the classroom and what the kids get to experience, but I don’t want her to get hurt, either, going to school," Welch said.
Whether she returns or not, she'll always have the extended family that she's built over 20 years – all of whom still call her Grandma, she said.
“The kids never forget you. It’s quite a life.”
To get involved
Foster grandparents must be retired, 55 or older, and in reasonably good health. He or she also must meet federal income guidelines, and will be paid with a tax-free stipend. Paid holiday, vacation and sick days are included.
They also must take 20 hours of training and submit to a background check before they begin mentoring in a classroom.
The local program is based at Tri-County Opportunities Council, 405 Emmons Ave. in Rock Falls.
Go to www.ccochelps.org or call its director, Susie Welch, at 815-625-7830, ext. 40, for more information, including a list of the schools in Bureau, Carroll, LaSalle, Lee, Marshall, Ogle, Putnam, Stark and Whiteside counties that use the program.