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Abilene's Foster Grandparent Program Is Growing

(Joy Bonala/KACU) Foster Grandparent Marian Rivas teaches crochet Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at the Martinez Boys and Girls Club in Abilene.
(Joy Bonala/KACU) Foster Grandparent Marian Rivas teaches crochet Tuesday, June 27, 2017 at the Martinez Boys and Girls Club in Abilene.

The Abilene Boys and Girls Club has consolidated for the summer, keeping just one club open. Inside, hundreds of kids were busy playing. Far in a corner several elderly women sat at a table surrounded by quiet children with their little fingers trained on crochet hooks.

“So we’re going to go yarn under, over, and pull it out,” Marian Rivas said as she helped a young girl learn the basics.

“It’s real easy, let’s try it sweetheart,” Rivas said.

Rivas is one of dozen foster grandparents at the club this summer. A federal program makes it possible for seniors like her to serve communities across the nation. Rivas loves the work.

“It helps me not to be by myself anymore,” Rivas said. “This is what I like, working with the children.  It’s very good for us, it makes us feel needed.”

About a year ago the Abilene area had around 30 foster grandparents, today there are 92. The number of grandparents has tripled due to better marketing of the program and also thoughtful placement of the grandparents by their coordinator, Debra Young.

“I really care about them,” Young said. “I want them to be happy and I want them to keep coming back.”

She said the program helps low-income seniors find a way to give back, whether it’s rocking newborn babies or mentoring teenagers at the juvenile detention center. You can find these grandparents in 28 locations in and outside of Abilene. 

“We pay them a small stipend, and it’s a stipend because it’s only $2.65 an hour,” Young said. “It’s not considered income so it’s not taxed, and doesn’t affect social security, food stamps or housing.”

They also receive mileage or a bus pass. Young has learned a lot about each of her volunteers and knows how hard it is to be be struggling financially while dealing with the difficulties of aging.

“They tell me the aches and pains you get as you get older, you just don’t want to get up but those kids are counting on you so you get up and go and once you’re there you don’t want to leave,” Young said.

Sometimes the children foster grandparents watch are from single-parent homes and might not otherwise get that one-on-one attention from an elder.

Fay Jones, 83, has been working as a foster grandparent for ten years. During the school year she works with Headstart 4-year-olds, but here she gets to teach crafts, which happens to be one of her favorite hobbies.

Fay Jones, 83, teaches a craft project.
Fay Jones, 83, teaches a craft project.

“Well I do get some ideas from pinterest,” Jones said. “But a lot of them I’ve just done all my life.”

For Jones, things got more difficult when her husband died. The stipend she receives really makes a difference.

“I make enough to make my car payment so it allows me to drive my car and not have to worry about my kids helping pay my bills,” Jones said.

While the work does give her financial independence, more than anything she loves being a foster grandparent because of the relationships. She said the best part of it all is the lifelong friendships she’s made and of course, getting the hugs from the kids.

Most of Abilene’s foster grandparents are in their 70s. The oldest is 94. And they come from a wealth of backgrounds. At the Boys and Girls Club this summer, two of the grandparents are veterans and two have a master’s degree.

Debra Young uses that diversity as an asset, she’s expanded the program’s reach to put grandparents in more roles - helping out at the Children’s Art and Literacy Festival or teaching robotics at a STEM camp. She said the program is growing because seniors are learning they can contribute in their very own unique way, using whatever skill they spent a lifetime perfecting.