Printed on: January 02, 2013

Students connect with Foster Grandparents

By Nate Sunderland

It's a commonly held belief among first-graders at Bridgewater Elementary School in Idaho Falls that grandparents are "really cool."

They are placed on a pedestal by the students, first-grade teacher Nelle Lucas said.

That makes the volunteers from the Foster Grandparents of South East Idaho program near celebrities.

"If it's a teenage (volunteer) the children want to play, if its one of their mothers the children whine, but (students) automatically respect (a grandma) and they love her from day one because she is a grandma," Lucas said.

Blackfoot-based Foster Grandparents of South East Idaho places volunteers into schools and Head Start programs at nearly 40 sites throughout the region. The program connects people 55 and older with children and teenagers.

More than 80 local volunteers, many of them senior citizens, work one-on-one with children and adolescents teaching them reading, spelling and math.

At Bridgewater, first-graders are fond of "Grandma Phyllis" -- 75-year-old Phyllis DeGarlais -- and "Grandma Ernst" -- 65-year-old Susan Ernst.

Both Idaho Falls women spend four hours a day listening to students read.

The primary goal of Foster Grandparents is to help students improve academically, Ernst said.

But a strong secondary goal is providing a fulfilling pastime for older volunteers.

"It brings gratification to see children progress," Ernst said. "I feel like (the children) need me and I need them -- it's a two-way street."

The program also increases the exposure of youths to older individuals with different values, board member Kathy Fronk said.

"It teaches them respect for the older generation and to be grateful for the things they've done for us," Fronk said. "It also teaches them some of their values."

The chance to spend time with Grandma Phyllis or Grandma Ernst outside the classroom is a treat for many Bridgewater first-graders.

"We like Grandma Ernst because she shows us how to read so we can go to second grade or third grade," 7-year-old Joshuan Perez said.

Sierra Hibbens, 6, loves reading and talking to Grandma Ernst "about all kinds of stuff."

The experience is equally rewarding for the foster grandparents.

DeGarlais has been helping students read at Bridgewater for 10 years. She joined Foster Grandparents because she wanted a constructive and meaningful activity to fill her retirement.

"I like kids and it takes up a part of my time -- it gives me something to do," DeGarlais said. "I love to see how the kids come (into first grade) knowing nothing and when they graduate into second grade they can read better -- I love to see the difference."

DeGarlais has worked with Lucas for the better part of a decade. Together, they've developed a successful system to teach and mentor young students.

"Many of these children come from fragmented families where both parents are working," Lucas said. "Grandma Phyllis comes every day and is consistent.

"Every day I know that someone is going to be listening to my students one-on-one for at least 20 minutes, (which they may not get at home)."

Foster grandparents also are valuable in an era of educational cutbacks, Fronk said, because they help fill the void left by fewer teacher's aides.

"We're a team," Lucas said. "It's another set of eyes and another way to evaluate how students are doing."

Additionally, foster grandparents are some of the best volunteers available, Lucas said, because their schedules allow them to be more dependable than parent volunteers.

Finally, many older volunteers have the experience to be there for students, Ernst said.

"Students look at me as somebody they can talk to ... because sometimes they're own grandma isn't here," Ernst said. "Sometimes they just want to talk."

Nate Sunderland can be reached at 542-6763. Comment on this story on Post Talk at

Get involved

For information about joining the Foster Grandparents of South East Idaho, call director Lori Murdock at 785-8454 or 785-8452 or email Information also is available at

Foster Grandparents.

Blackfoot-based Foster Grandparents of South East Idaho is the local chapter of the Foster Grandparents Program, a national service program run by the federal Senior Corps agency.

The program connects people 55 and older with children and teenagers. In eastern Idaho, foster grandparents work in schools or after-school programs, where they teach and help students with basic academic skills.

Foster grandparents volunteer from 15 to 40 hours each week. Those below a certain income level receive a tax-free hourly stipend. Stipends are paid with federal grants, donations and contributions from organizations such as the United Way.

Those who earn more than the income requirement still can be foster grandparents.

Foster Grandparents of South East Idaho extends north and south -- between Malad and Island Park -- and east to west from Driggs to Salmon