Foster Grandparent Program benefits seniors, children

CAMDEN — Camden resident Barbara Pfeiffer doesn’t have grandchildren of her own. But as a Foster Grandparent through Lourdes’ partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service, Pfeiffer smiles with pride as she thinks of the hundreds of “grandchildren” she’s fostered over the years.

“It is such a gift to see how children grow and advance,” said Pfeiffer, a Camden resident and art teacher who has been with the program for four years. “I imagine it’s the same feeling that a grandparent has, to have a very special sense of connection with a child. The program is a perfect fit for me, incorporating my wanting to serve and help children with my love of art. It has given me so much.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the federally funded Foster Grandparent program. Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, one of few sites in South Jersey, has hosted the program for more than 25 years—helping to connect seniors and children in Camden, Burlington, Atlantic, Gloucester and Salem counties. Seniors volunteer between 15 to 30 hours per week in schools, daycare facilities and head start centers, serving as role models and mentors to children with exceptional needs.

“It’s a win-win program,” said Elizabeth Schaaf, director of Senior Services at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center. “The program benefits children in that the support they receive from their foster grandparent helps set them on a successful path. For seniors, the program gives them an opportunity to share their experience, wisdom and compassion with the younger generation. It’s also a way to stay active after retirement. It’s deeply rewarding for seniors and children.”

Pfeiffer is one of 83 volunteers with the Lourdes’ program. To become a foster grandparent, volunteers must be age 55 or older. After an application process, background check and clearances, volunteers receive pre-service orientation, and training from the organization where they’ll serve. Meals while on-duty are provided, as well as mileage reimbursement to and from each assignment. Volunteers receive supplemental accident and liability insurance and seniors who meet certain income guidelines receive a small stipend. The stipend does not interfere with any other benefits.

The program enables foster grandparents to provide social and academic support. “Following the direction of the classroom teacher, senior volunteers can help children in a number of ways,” said Adria Cruz, program coordinator for the Foster Grandparent program at Lourdes. “These include helping children learn to read and tie their shoes, as well as providing one-on-one tutoring, mentoring troubled youth, and caring for premature infants or children with disabilities. Our volunteers follow a lesson plan for each child and oftentimes give the child the one-on-one attention they may need.”

The ultimate goal is to have an impact in a child’s life, explained Cruz. “The program is outcomes-based. A check-in is done on a regular basis, with teacher feedback and assessments made to make sure that, not only is it a good fit for the child and volunteer, but that it’s beneficial to the child’s well-being.”

Camden resident Mabel Farmer, 81, a grandmother and great-grandmother, and church school superintendent at Hosanna AME Church in Camden, has served as a foster grandparent through Lourdes’ program for the past 15 years. As the longest-serving Lourdes Foster Grandparent, she works multiple times a week with children at Respond, Inc., which offers comprehensive services in child care, youth services, senior adult care, programs for homeless adults, job training and associated programs.

In her role as a Foster Grandparent, Farmer provides support to children, for example, eating meals with children and reviewing social skills and table manners. “It’s rewarding to connect with a child and be a supportive part of their life,” said Farmer. “That’s why I’ve served for so long. As a retiree, the program does more than just occupy my time. Some of the children I’ve worked with have graduated high school and college by now. It gives me a sense of accomplishment to see a child grow and do well.”

Cruz says that the program contracts with schools and day care centers for one year, with the option of renewing after that year, and while the Lourdes program is currently at capacity, she is always looking for additional grandparents. “We have a wait list that I do tap into because anything can come up. We do our best to match geography and each person’s expectations of how much they’d like to volunteer. Spanish-speaking volunteers are especially needed. Female and male seniors are welcomed to apply.”

To find out more about becoming a foster grandparent through Lourdes, call 856-757-3738.

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