Tillie Fares wasn't all that comfortable around children at first.
Now, 10 years later, she is ensconced as "Grandma Tillie" at the Independence School District's Santa Fe Trail Elementary, where she volunteers as part of the Foster Grandparents Program. And she wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"I retired and got bored staying home, so I found out about this program and I joined it, and I loved it," Grandma Tillie said. "I didn't think I would because it's dealing with children. I had always worked and I paid a babysitter, so this was a little different for me. But I liked it and I got really motivated with it. ... I love the school, love the staff, love my teacher and, of course, every year I get different kids, and I love the kids."
Fares and Barbara Taylor – known by the kids as "Grandma Barbara" – help Santa Fe kindergarten teachers Sarah Schraml and Melanie Shoupes deal with the children and work one-on-one with some children who are in need of extra help or attention.
They are part of a network of 86 senior volunteers throughout the metro area who help out at 27 sites, including the Independence School District, Kansas City Public Schools, public charter schools, early childhood centers, Children's Mercy Hospital and Jackson County Family Court. Started in 1965, the Foster Grandparent Program is a Senior Corps program federally funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service and is sponsored locally by Reconciliation Services.
"I enjoy kids, I love kids, and I think I can be a big help to them," Grandma Barbara said of why she helps out at Santa Fe. "I notice from the time we start in August to the end in May, they have made such big improvements, just with a little one-on-one time. And I love it."
Schraml said the help that Grandmas Tillie and Barbara provide is invaluable to them. They not only help students one-on-one, they help teachers with little things like helping check backpacks, putting away computers and escorting the students to lunch and special classes like art, music, physical education and library time so the teachers can focus on lessons.
"They're a huge help," Schraml said. "She works one-on-one with students a lot when they're struggling or if they need help sounding out words, so I can work with the whole group and she can help the kids who are struggling more.
"Both of them are a constant. They're here every day, unless they absolutely have to miss. They really do count on the grandmas for a lot of stuff, for kind of those grandma things, like if they're sad, if they're sick, they'll see them or sit with them. ... The kids just love them."
The students say they help them a lot.
"It feels like they're like parents," Haley Chastain, a student in Schraml's class, said. "We miss them when they're not here. They're a lot of fun."
"She helps me do my letters and draw pictures. She helps me a lot. She's my new grandma," said Colton Chastain, Haley's twin brother who works with Grandma Barbara in Shoupes' class.
"She does lots of good stuff," said Nathan Price, who works with Grandma Tillie in Schraml's class. "She helps me learn my words and my sight words. I give her hugs. She's great."
Grandmas Tillie and Barbara say older students who were part of their classes in kindergarten still come by class to say hello or greet them with hellos and hugs when they are seen about town.
Summer Griffith, who is the Jackson County director for the Foster Grandparents Program, said the volunteers serve as role models, mentors and friends to children with exceptional needs. But it's a two-way street that helps the volunteers as well.
"The inter-generational relationship benefits both the volunteers and the kids," Griffith said. "For the kids who need a little help in terms of academic engagement, they a get tutor and mentor who can work one on one with them for the whole year. In some of our sites, the kids have experienced real trauma and having a safe and loving Foster Grandparent can make all the difference in their education. The Foster Grandparents, in turn, receive a renewed sense of purpose. This relationship combats loneliness for our older volunteers, which we know is one of the leading social indicators for declining mental and physical health in older adults. It keeps them physically and mentally active."
Grandma Tillie said it has benefited her after she retired from working with Commerce Bank. She thought about returning to working for the bank when she got bored, but a social worker at her senior living facility warned they would raise her rent there if she returned to full-time employment. The social worker suggested she try Foster Grandparents.
"I get a lot of satisfaction out of it," Tillie said. "I'm down here five days a week, working from 8 to 2:30 every day, and I just love it – just to see their faces and for them to learn. ... It just makes me happy to see their faces in the morning. They smile, they give you hugs. And when I'm sick they miss me. They have Mrs. Schraml call me and she puts them on speaker so they can tell me to get better."
Grandma Barbara said in addition to the satisfaction she gets from helping the children, it helped her combat some loneliness after her husband passed away in 2005. Started in 2006 and has been going strong for 12 years.
How satisfying is it for her?
"One hundred percent," she said with conviction. "We have some kids who need extra loving, and to see the smile on their face ... I have four grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, but it's something about these kids that you can see the emptiness and something that they don't get, so it makes my day to help fill some of that emptiness. I know I do.
"It filled that emptiness (with me). All of my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren are all pretty much grown, and they have their lives to live – and they're still good to me – but my husband passed in '05 and I started this in '06. So this filled the loneliness that I felt."
Each has said they have had special favorite kids but that they love all of the children. But some leave emotional marks.
"The first year that I started, there was one (student), he was really smart but his home life was not very good, and I got attached to him, and he got attached to me," Grandma Tillie said. "That's always in my heart. And I have special ones in this class too."
The program provides small, non-taxable stipends to the volunteers, who also get support from Reconciliation Services, including rent and utility assistance and needed medical and dental supplies and prescriptions through the KC Medicine Cabinet.
But Griffith said that they grandparents provide so much more in return. In 2017, Foster Grandparent volunteers served more than 89,000 hours and added over $1.1 million in value to the community, she said.
But the small amount of money they receive isn't the reason they do it, Tillie and Barbara concur.
"When you accomplish the least little bit, you feel like you've got a crown coming. It's great work when you get my age and retire," Barbara said.
"It just makes me happy," Tillie said. "It feels like I'm doing something for the world and for Independence and my community. I enjoy being here."
– To volunteer or for more information about the Foster Grandparents Program, contact Summer Griffith at email@example.com.