July 17, 2015
One-on-one reading time with Betty Dawson at Mayors Day 2014. Photo courtesy of Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.
Spend any time with children, and you quickly realize how important an extra set of hands can be to guiding them in a good direction.
That’s precisely what the Foster Grandparent Program is all about – a lovely pairing of people with life experience with children who are learning how to succeed in the big world around them.
The Foster Grandparent Program is celebrating its 50th anniversary of making an impact. Established in 1965, the program focuses on tutoring and mentoring in local schools and community based programs, including Head Start. The focus is simple: to improve behavioral and educational outcomes for special and exceptional needs, to teach job skills to economically disadvantaged youth and to support the children of veterans and deployed military members.
The people who become Foster Grandparents don’t necessarily bring formal experience in tutoring or mentoring to the job, instead they receive training from the organization they serve. These dedicated volunteers provide anywhere from 15 to 40 hours every week in classrooms across Dane County, a big impact for a core of 14 volunteers in Dane County and 30,000 strong nationally and an even larger return in job satisfaction to the Foster Grandparents.
Melvin Hinton’s longtime love of words and language led him to pursue a degree in Spanish literature and linguistics. He has lived and worked in Spain for several years. Being bilingual allowed him to use his skills in many different settings, most recently as a Foster Grandparent at Lincoln Elementary working with 5th grade students who are bilingual, speaking English in school and Spanish at home.
“Teaching is one of my great loves,” Says Hinton. “There is enormous satisfaction working with the children because I remember how I was treated as a young learner. I enjoy widening their imagination and expectations of what they can do, what they’re capable of producing in writing, in understanding and in reading.”
Melvin Hinton reading to students at Mayor’s Day 2014 event. Photo courtesy of Retired and Senior Volunteer Program.
Hinton works with students on both sides of language use, helping kids become more proficient in English and for others working with them to maintain their ability to speak Spanish. Recently Hinton worked with his students on a poetry unit, helping them memorize and perform an Emily Dickinson poem for their classmates, an enormous feat for kids who are toggling between two languages. After the immediate relief of having their performance behind them, the kids asked to learn another poem to perform – is there a better compliment than to have your students show a desire to keep learning?
The Dream Keeper
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
Exploring the Langston Hughes poem “The Dream Keeper,” Hinton and his students discussed the phrase ‘too rough fingers’ – their own youthful hands served as a poor reference, so Hinton used his older, slightly rougher hands as an example that gave them a deeper understanding of what Hughes was saying. The many meanings of the word ‘dreams’ led Hinton to share some of his own dreams and encouraged the kids to think about and share some of their own – serving as a prime example of how the arts can lead to a more enriched view of ourselves and the world around us.
The impact isn’t just on the children being directly touched by Foster Grandparents, it ripples out to classmates, teachers, and sometimes to the success of programs. “These kids love him so much they are willing to give up recess to work with Melvin. And if one of his regular kids is absent, the other kids clamor to work with him that day,” explained Amelia Ramirez, Lincoln Fifth Grade Teacher. “And he’s no nonsense. He has high expectations of them and they work hard to reach them.”
Serving as a Foster Grandparent at Lincoln Elementary for seven years, Betty Dawson was an institution. Everyone knew who she was and loved her dearly. “Miss Betty was my right-hand Lady.” said teacher Carolyn Konkol. “She was here 3-4 days every week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. She made a huge commitment to these kids.”
Miss Betty helped with one-on-one reading and math skills, and worked on honing further literature skills through songs and poems. She attended school field trips, attended after-school programs and activities and knew and loved the families in the Lincoln School community. She became a steady influence in her students’ days, and was often able to reach the ‘tough to reach kids.’
Fellow teacher Angela Turner states, “She had an impact on my grandson like no one else could.”
Her assignment was to work with the students, but reaching out to the staff was also a big part of her impact at the school. Miss Betty and Ms. Konkol’s room became the adult lunch bunch spot, a place where staff gathered to share, laugh and generally support each other. “She taught me who I am as a white teacher, she taught me to be culturally relevant,” said Konkol. “Also, every student teacher that has been in this classroom, was affected by Miss Betty and will take her lessons of cultural relevance with them to their own classrooms.”
Miss Betty passed away in November 2014, leaving an empty chair in Konkol’s classroom and a rich treasure trove of memories for her students, their parents, the school staff and teachers to draw upon. “Anyone who knew Miss Betty had a story of love to share,” Konkol added.
Foster Grandparents from across Wisconsin came together in Madison, May 20-21, to mark the anniversary and participate in continuing education in child development, approaches to literacy, personal skill development and motivation.
The gathering honored and celebrated how these one-on-one pairings between grandparents and students offers the struggling reader or disruptive student the extra attention they need to succeed, and along the way builds bridges across generations. A win-win for the students, the teachers, the programs and the volunteers!
If you are interested in more information about the Foster Grandparent Program, call Akeem Torres, 608-441-7894 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.