Peggy Schaffer has been helping teach Hibbing fourth and fifth graders math for 10 years. But she isn’t a teacher — she’s a foster grandparent.
Schaffer has been a volunteer at Lincoln Elementary School and at Kiddie Karousel day care in Hibbing through the AmeriCorps Seniors program, which is now facilitated by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. Schaffer tutors students with math lessons during class, and acts as a grandparent figure to the children.
“It’s so much fun with the kids. It really keeps you young,” Schaffer said. “I’m a cheerleader. Sometimes the kids just need that. I’m really good at math and I’m just a cheerleader for them."
The Foster Grandparent program was left in uncertainty after Catholic Community Services lost its grant funding for its Senior Corps programs in summer 2019. After funding was lost, the Foster Grandparent and Retired Senior Volunteer programs abruptly ended, leaving about 90 senior volunteers in Northwestern Wisconsin and Northeastern Minnesota without facilitation. Lutheran Social Service received a grant in April 2020 to restart the Foster Grandparent program in the region, but Minnesota Program Director Ron Urbanski said they didn’t know who had previously been involved in the program to recruit them back.
“It’s been a challenge,” Urbanski said. “There are volunteers out there who want to volunteer again, and there are schools who had volunteers who would like to participate again. Our challenge is to locate them because we don't have the old records.”
The volunteers are paid a $3 hourly stipend. Urbanski said because the stipend is untaxed and doesn’t affect any low-income benefits, it can go a long way for seniors.
Schaffer decided to give the program a try in 2011. She knew she was good at math, and was placed in Mandy Huusko’s class to help with fifth grade math.
“I had no idea. I chose fifth grade math thinking, that’s easy!” Schaffer said. “I had more homework when I first started than the kids did, because you can’t help them if you don’t know how to do it.”
Urbanski described foster grandparents like Schaffer as “supervolunteers.” While the requirement for the stipend is to invest a minimum of 10 hours a week, many will commit more time to the program, sometimes volunteering full time at 40 hours a week. Because children see these volunteers so frequently and are able to work one-on-one with them, children can start to view them as a grandparent figure as well as a tutor.
“I think it’s more than a homework-help connection,” Huusko said. “I think it truly is more of a grandparent connection for some of those kids.”
Huusko, who had Schaffer in her classes every year since 2011, said having an extra person in the class helped her make sure students were receiving the support they needed. This year, Schaffer is in Jolene Etter’s fifth grade class and Elizabeth Scipioni’s fourth grade class.
“She was a godsend to have because it was so much help, and it is so much help for the two teachers who have her this year,” Huusko said. “I just don't even know if there’s another grandma out there that could compare to Peggy. She just goes above and beyond, and maybe that’s because I’ve only had her for 10 years, but most teachers would love to have that extra helping hand in their rooms.”
Urbanski said many senior volunteers appreciate the opportunity to make a difference in their communities. Foster grandparents can partner with facilities such as schools, day cares, shelters for women and children or correctional facilities — really anywhere a grandparent-like connection could be formed.
“Those kids work with those grandparents regularly, and they get to know each other and form a relationship,” Urbanski said. “It’s pretty amazing how close our volunteers get to those kids.”
Schaffer said she has been touched by her ability to be a friend to children. Sometimes students will seek her out to have someone to sit with or talk to on field trips or around the school. She said in return, she has gained confidence in herself since joining the program 10 years ago. Plus, it gives her a reason to get out of the house and stay active during her retirement years.
“The foster grandparent program helps you just as much as it helps the children,” Schaffer said.
The only requirements to become a foster grandparent, Urbanski said, are to be age 55 or older, be able to commit at least 10 hours a week to volunteering, and want to work with children in some capacity. Even if a volunteer doesn’t have experience working with children, they can work with their host facility to find a place they feel comfortable.
To learn more about becoming a foster grandparent, visit lssmn.org, contact an area Lutheran Social Service representative or call 888-205-3770.