When Lorraine Silveira found out that the Foster Grandparent program was being dissolved at Coastline, she cried.
All she could do, she said, was think about the children in the Head Start program where she volunteered and wonder how the classroom would function without FGP help.
“I was upset every time I thought about it,” said Silveira. “I’m in my 13th year (with FGP) and all I could think was that the people who did this don’t realize what they’re doing, because these children that we help, you know, they need help bad. They don’t know anything. They don’t know their letters or their numbers.”
The Foster Grandparent program, which operated through Coastline in the New Bedford area for more than 40 years, places older volunteers in schools and early learning centers as “grandparents” who help support and guide students and aid teachers. As an AmeriCorps Seniors program, it operates locally through agencies like Coastline.
This spring, the aging services agency began looking for a new home for FGP.
At the time, Coastline CEO Justin Lees wrote about the decision in Senior Scope, saying, “For Coastline to effectively serve our consumers, we need to become laser-focused on our core programs and allocate whatever available resources we have to meeting these rising needs. The Foster Grandparent program does many things, but it does not serve our core mission of allowing people to live independently in their homes.”
What Lees also said is that although Coastline would no longer host the program, it would work with local agencies to help transition it to a new host. Based on timing set by AmeriCorps Seniors, FGP volunteers were told that that the proposal process would create a year of transition when they wouldn’t be able to participate in classrooms but that, ultimately, they could continue in the program.
For volunteers like Silveira, many of whom have been FGP volunteers for a decade or more, the thought of losing touch with their classrooms was distressing.
Then, in June, volunteers got the call they’d hoped for. Citizens for Citizens, Inc., a Fall River-based community action agency, was willing to step in and carry the program until a new organization could be found. Volunteers were told they could come back to work and continue in the program they’d been working in.
Citizens for Citizens hadn’t been looking for a new FGP program to administer, said Judy Charest, CFC director of FGP programs in Fall River and Taunton area schools. But when she learned that the New Bedford program was in danger, she immediately wanted to help. Her initial plan was to ask New Bedford volunteers to transition to Fall River or Taunton where they could continue to volunteer and receive the program stipend.
But she changed her mind after speaking face-to-face with volunteers. Once she met them, Charest said, she knew she needed to find a way to keep New Bedford active with no hiatus.
“I felt so bad because I couldn’t keep them in New Bedford and half of them don’t drive. They take buses or (other transportation). They don’t make a lot of money, but they depend on it,” she said, adding. “If I hadn’t have met them, I wouldn’t have known. So, I came back to Fall River and spoke to my executive director.”
With Charest’s enthusiastic support, CFC made the decision to take on New Bedford’s program, operating it from the city and creating a bridge to keep the program active until a proposal process could be held in fiscal year ‘24.
Speaking in July, Charest said she was working hard to get all the details done before school starts again in September. That means setting up stipend payment processes, creating new memorandums of understanding with New Bedford-area schools and more, she said.
“Coastline has been very, very helpful and really great,” she said about the set-up process. “They’re going to allow me to use an office space in their building, so I can meet with volunteers there.”
Having a New Bedford space also allows volunteers to continue dropping off their completed timesheets twice a month, especially for those who don’t email or have access to a fax.
Citizens for Citizens will also look to rent space in New Bedford for the program and hire a person to run it locally, Charest said. They have committed to running the program for two years and are working with AmeriCorps Seniors to handle any administrative details.
The plan is for the FGP program to go out to bid in fiscal year 2024 to begin again under a new host in FY’25, according to Charest.
Lees said he is optimistic that the process will be a success and a new home for FGP will be found.
“We’ve heard enough early interest in the program to feel confident a new host will be identified,” he said.
For volunteers, these details are unimportant compared to the news that they will return to the children they love. Silveira is most excited about going back to the 17 Head Start children who call her ‘Grandma.’
“I’m glad somebody picked this up because the kids, they need us,” she said. “They really need us.”