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'Foster grandparents' connect with young students in Maine classrooms

The Opportunity Alliance's "Foster Grandparent Program" had 88 volunteers in 2021. Collectively, they served more than 50,000 hours in 40 different schools.

WINDHAM, Maine — It isn't every day you see someone over the age of 50 sitting in a first-grade classroom. Windham Primary School is one place, though, where that is a somewhat-regular occurrence. 

On Tuesday, 74-year-old Sue Nichols and 82-year-old Bonnie Rogers joined Heather Ray's classroom, full of bubbly and enthusiastic young students. 

Nichols and Rogers were there as part of The Opportunity Alliance's "Foster Grandparent Program." It's a federally-funded national AmeriCorps initiative that allows retired seniors to connect with children. 

"There’s just nothing better, I think, than coming into a classroom of young, fresh, energetic faces to keep our volunteers feeling involved in their community," Chloe Gray, the lead volunteer coordinator for The Opportunity Alliance, said.

Gray said in 2021, the program had 88 "foster grandparents" who served more than 50,000 hours collectively across 40 different schools. The Opportunity Alliance only serves schools in Cumberland and York counties and some bordering on the Oxford County line. Gray said Penquis runs a similar program in the 14 other counties in our state. 

Gray said she thinks the connection this program provides is important.

"Ultimately, when it comes down to it, they're another loving adult in the classroom. That’s really what we’re looking for," Gray said.

Sue Nichols has been volunteering for the program for 10 years and comes in five days a week. She retired from her job as a secretary at Windham Primary School in 2012 after starting there in 1970. While that was a tough decision, she said having this opportunity made it more bearable.

"I don’t want to sit," Nichols said. "I’m not a good sitter, and that’s what I would’ve been doing."

Nichols added she's hoping to stay with this program for as long as possible. She said while it's helpful to her, she also understands that it's helpful to children who may not have a loving grandparent near them.

"A lot of them have that, but a lot of them don’t. You can usually tell who does need the extra [love]," Nichols said.

Bonnie Rogers typically works in a different classroom at Windham Primary School, but she has been volunteering for 11 years now. She said she does it because she doesn't want to grow old.

"It’s just wonderful knowing that you’re doing something. You have a purpose," Rogers said.

Rogers explained she started volunteering after she was widowed when her husband died. She said she comes in for three days a week, which leaves plenty of opportunity for personal time. She also said volunteering is the highlight of her day.

"My favorite part is when they come in in the morning, and they’re energetic and looking around. They’re just ready to start the day with you," Rogers said.

Having those extra hands on deck is helpful to teachers, too, like Heather Ray. This is her second year working with "foster grandparents". She said life and work before them was a lot more stressful.

"I was bringing things home all the time, or I was staying late all the time," Ray said.

Ray added she encourages others to get involved and see how it makes them feel.

"I actually tell my grandmother every morning when I talk to her on the phone that she should join," Ray said, laughing. 

Gray said volunteers typically work 10 to 40 hours per week and help a lot with crafts, math, paying attention, and reading. 

Anyone 55 years or older can apply to join, and some people may be income-eligible to earn a stipend. You can learn more here, or by calling 207-773-0202. 

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