Lots of children call her “grandma.” She gets recognized outside of the classroom, like when she’s out doing her grocery shopping. Youngsters run up to her in public, sometimes to the shock of their parents, who don’t recognize the person their child is hugging tightly. Belinda Williams, 68, has grown to be immensely popular among the children of Lake Forest Elementary School. So is Denise Tumbleson, with second graders at Newberry Elementary School, and 40 other foster grandparents in their distinct placements. They’re not the biological grandparents of the kids in their respective classrooms or daycares, but that doesn’t mean their roles are any different.
“I have 600 grandkids,” laughed Tumbleson, 63. “A whole school.”
She was recruited into Alachua County’s Foster Grandparent Program four years ago by her mother, 87, who is also part of the program. Since her daughter’s kids live out of state, she was missing that presence in her life. “They are the best thing that’s happened to me since my own grandchildren,” she said.
The program, which began in July 1973, is for low-income people aged 55 or over, providing them opportunities to assist children with “special or exceptional needs” on a case-by-case basis in local schools, daycares and related settings. According to Theresa Jewell, one of the program specialists, it’s a broad category, but includes children with a learning disability, autism, dyslexia, those who are developmentally behind or who are simply the youngest kid in the class.
As the program approaches its 50th anniversary, more and more Alachua County teachers and schools are asking for their own “grandmas.”
The volunteers have a big impact on children and are a great help to teachers in the classroom, too. For example, if a child is having a meltdown while the teacher is at the board during a lesson, the grandma can sweep in and ameliorate the situation while the other kids’ education is not impacted.
“We love our grandma,” said Katrina Merriex, or Ms. ‘X’, as she’s known in her classroom. “I don’t know what we’d do without her.” The kindergarten teacher has a great relationship with Belinda Williams, her assigned foster grandparent, who she has been working with for two years. Williams has been part of the program for over seven years, going on eight, and Lake Forest Elementary is her third location.
“Once you just sit there with them and help them out, they learn,” said Williams. “I love working with them…I love kids.”
“Ooh, you got a grandma? How do I get a grandma?” Merriex was asked by a new teacher. There is no shortage of classrooms in need of and requesting foster grandparents. In order to be allowed to work with the kids, the volunteers must be thoroughly vetted. They go through interviews, level two background checks and pre-service training before they are allowed to step foot in a classroom and granted the title. The next batch of volunteers will hit schools in August, and interviews have already begun.
“All I know is, Grandma Williams can’t go nowhere. That’s our grandma,” said Merriex.
“She takes over our kids that might need an extra little push, she talks with them, reads to them, they might need their shoes tied. It may be a small activity, puzzles, math, it just depends on what the need is.”
According to Merriex, a lot of the children’s grandparents are young – around 30 or 40 – and being exposed an older, more seasoned foster grandparent is a different experience for them.
The ages of the current volunteers range from 62 to 96 years old. One of them has been part of the program for 32 years and 6 months, which means that they have been helping and connecting with kids since the early ‘90s.
However, the program’s function is twofold: not only does it allow volunteers to help the children, but it also serves to support the foster grandparents, too.
Volunteers receive an hourly stipend, are provided transportation if they need it, and are reimbursed for mileage if they have their own. They are also provided meals and receive recognition gifts throughout the year. Since schools are now relying more on technology, last year they began to receive computer training on devices provided by the program during workshops.
On April 1, the hourly stipend was raised from $3.15 to $4 an hour. This is a big change from four years ago, when the stipend was $2.65. Volunteers work about 20 hours a week on average, even though the minimum the county requires is only 10. Many are on campus five days a week, open to close.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly reduced the number of volunteers in Alachua County, with the total going from 72 down to 42. They are slowly rebuilding their volunteer base and are in the process of rebranding to get the program and its mission out to more seniors – changing up the language they use to recruit people to make things more accessible for potential grandparents.
“There are many benefits to the program, but our purpose is to serve Alachua County,” said Trelany Pennington, the program manager. “So, we want as many senior volunteers that are able and willing to be a part of the program. All of our schools are asking for more volunteers. The need is there throughout the county.”
Every December, an annual recognition ceremony is held, a time where all the volunteers and staff come together to celebrate one another and their work within the community. The 50th annual recognition is only in the pre-planning stages, but Pennington said everyone is already really excited about it.
“It will be an opportunity to showcase the work that our volunteers have done over the last 50 years,” she said. “It’s definitely going to be a big celebration.”