By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY January 25, 2005 How do you make kids excited about school?
How about relating the bus ride to the building with a trip to Grandmas house?
The foster grandmothers of Sullivan County are helping to make school a welcoming place for children, a home away from home.
Through a federal- and state-funded program begun while President Lyndon B. Johnson was still in office, elderly residents of six counties in New York are finding new purpose as members of their local school systems.
In Sullivan County, there are 34 grandparents doling out hugs and morning snacks.
The kids love them, and Helen Hinchey, area field supervisor for the program, says her seniors are among the most active shes ever seen.
They are younger looking, theyre more energetic, she said.
Theres pep in their step when they cruise the aisles of the grocery store, stopping to accept a big bear hug from a student who recognizes them off duty.
Folks like Melanie Rapp wouldnt have it any other way.
At 78, Rapp is a relative newcomer to Sullivan County she moved to Monticello in 1988 in search of a senior housing facility.
But she didnt want to sit home like shes seen so many seniors do. So, in 1991, she called Hinchey and asked to be assigned to a local classroom.
Hinchey put her in touch with administration at Monticello Central Schools George L. Cooke Elementary, and Rapp had found her new home.
Rapp hasnt let anything stand in the way of her days with the children in Sue Dollards second grade classroom.
A paralyzed vocal cord left her unable to call out a childs name across the room so she would just ask another student, someone nearby, to help her get their attention.
When the New York Daily News wanted to do a story on a miraculous surgery that restored her voice, Rapp could have invited a photographer and reporter into her home.
Instead, she asked them to come to the school, so she could tell her story in a place where she was comfortable while boosting the profile of the grandma program.
Rapp is one of nine grandmas in the Cooke School, all women over the age of 60 who have decided to take another shot at life.
Theres a small stipend, which helps cover the bills, Rapp said. But there are much greater rewards.
These children have their whole life ahead of them. . . . You might be able to influence the good things they will do, she said.
These days, parents work, and they dont always have extra minutes to spend one-on-one time with each of their children. Teachers, meanwhile, are struggling to keep up with changes in the curriculum and the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
The children do miss the hugs and being able to talk to someone at any point during the day, Rapp said.
Thats where the grandmothers come in.
Mary Daly is 87 and still heading to work four days a week in Cherise Garcias first grade classroom.
She hands out hugs the way the candy man offers up his lollipops liberally.
For Garcia, Daly is a godsend.
Shes an intrinsic part of my program, Garcia said. I would hate to think of a classroom without her.
Garcia has been teaching for 10 years; eight of which shes spent with Daly at her side.
The classroom grandma grades papers, she reads the children stories, she even helps with remediation.
There have been kids who, without her help, would have had to have been retained, Garcia said matter-of-factly.
Theyre helping them read, theyre helping them write, Garcia said. For us as teachers, thats the most important part . . .
Garcia lamented the difficulties of getting parent volunteers into the classroom but she said Daly helps make up for that. And shes got a world of experiences to share with the children every day.
Shes lived through five or six wars two world wars, Garcia said. What she brings to our discussions, our storytelling, is invaluable.
I feel it is essential to have a volunteer from the community in the classroom, but particularly a person who is retired from a career or who has had many experiences that can be shared with the children, Garcia said. Grandma has been an incredible resource.
Dollard appreciates the helping hand of a grandma in her classroom.
But most of all, theres a benefit to the children, she said.
She reads them stories, and at Hanukkah she made them potato pancakes . . . Grandma kind of stuff, Dollard explained. Shes always doing extra little things for them.
I have the best grandmother in the Cooke School, she added.
Garcia would beg to differ it seems every teacher thinks their grandma is the best on staff.
And each grandma has made a connection with their teacher and the kids.
I enjoy seeing them working, I enjoy seeing them growing and learning, Daly said of the kids in Garcias classroom. I love when you get to see them using things theyve learned.
I enjoy the children most of all, Rapp said. I walk through the hall, and its Grandma, Grandma.
Its wonderful walking in the school and everybody knows you, she added.
Principal Joe Hogan said the grandmothers should be an institution in a school.
They make the children feel welcome and relaxed, he said. I think were very, very lucky to have such a dedicated group of grandmothers.
Hed like to see more women, and men, like his current group come into the school system. And slots are available at a number of county school districts Liberty, Tri-Valley and Sullivan West all participate in the foster grandparent program.
Hinchey said the seniors just need to give her a call. In order to qualify for the nontaxable stipend, they have to meet certain income requirements, but she will do the rest.
Hinchey can act as liaison to the school districts, even asking schools that dont currently have the program if theyd be interested in having a new grandma on duty.
Shes also in charge of making sure the grandparents are trained and inviting them to a monthly meeting held in Liberty to keep the grandparents on the ball.
For more information on the program, or to get involved, call Hinchey at 338-8750, extension 104.
We do need foster grandparents in Sullivan County, Hinchey said. We need them very badly.