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Foster Grandparents Program Seeks Volunteers

Looking for a way to give back to the community while working with children who need your help? If you're 55 or older, the Foster Grandparent Program might be for you.

The national program, administered locally through Senior Connections, The Capital Area Agency on Aging, is seeking volunteers to mentor and work with children throughout the Richmond region, including Henrico County.

Volunteers work with children at public or non-profit agencies, such as public schools, faith-based daycare centers, Head Start programs, hospitals or infant care centers, among others. This year, in addition to many locations in the City of Richmond, volunteers are expected to serve at Henrico's Pinchbeck Elementary and St. Joseph's Villa.

The program "is designed to engage folks who have a lot of wisdom and experience and who are caring and a little bit outgoing," said Program Manager Charlene Cole.

The children served by the program are special-needs or exceptional education students, some of whom are affected by autism, ADD or hearing or visual impairments. Foster grandparents spend between 20 and 40 hours a week working with their children, helping with everything from mentoring students in school settings, assisting with classwork or reading skills and serving as role models to dressing, feeding or singing to children in hospitals or infant care settings.

The program is funded through a grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service, and as a result, each volunteer receives a modest hourly stipend for their efforts, Cole said. This year, the program has 57 spots to fill locally – most of which will be claimed by existing volunteers but about 8 to 10 of which will be open for new volunteers.

Becoming a foster grandparent through the program involves some effort on the part of volunteers – each must complete a 20-hour training course and a background check; meet certain income requirements; and spend a minimum of 20 hours per week with a child. But the rewards, Cole said, can be life-changing. She recounted the story of one longtime volunteer who was considering whether to continue with the program when he heard someone call his name in a store one day. He turned and saw a 17-year-old girl he didn't recognize at first – until she told him that he had mentored her through the program years ago and was preparing to start her first year of college.

"There are tons of stories like that," Cole said.

Program officials make every effort to place volunteers in a region, or even at a specific location they request, if possible, Cole said.

Because of the time commitments involved, "it takes people who are committed to working with children," she said.

The average age of foster grandparents in the local program is about 76, Cole said, with one participating who is in her early 90s. But in recent years, younger volunteers have gotten involved and many are interested in mentoring older students, she said.

As part of the program, transportation to and from the volunteer locations is provided free of charge, as are meals for the volunteers and annual physical examinations.

For details about the program, call 343-3047.
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