When Lee County students headed back to school, foster grandparents were there with them.
The Foster Grandparent Program of Southwest Florida is now hiring more volunteers ages 55 and over to provide tutoring and mentoring services to children in elementary schools, head start and after-school programs. Volunteers serve about 20 hours a week.
It is a paid position of a tax-free stipend of $2.65 per hour with a transportation reimbursement of 40 cents per mile. It's not the biggest pay in the world, but volunteers said the experience is worth the time.
Foster grandparent volunteer Helga Strauch helps Cape Elementary kindergartner Pablo Chevez during a writing lesson.
"The Foster Grandparent Program is partly funded by the city of Cape Coral Community Development Block Grant," said Nida C. Eluna, executive director of the Dr. Piper Center for Social Services Inc., along with funds from the center.
The program is directed through the Dr. Piper Center.
"Foster grandparents provide academic help and give emotional support," said the program's director, Joan Willoughby. "Due to the lack of teachers' assistants in the classrooms because of budget cuts, some children could fall through the cracks if it wasn't for this program."
When you talk to any school foster grandparent coordinator, all you hear is that, "We wouldn't know what to do without them, they give so much."
That is the sentiment expressed by Cape Elementary School Assistant Principal Dwayne Blazina of foster grandparent volunteer Helga Strauch.
"She does so much for us and we appreciate her very much. Helga has a huge heart and she loves all these kids," Blazina said. "She comes in with a great attitude every day and she's just so supportive in the classroom towards the teachers. I couldn't image what we would do without her."
He said she wears many hats in her volunteer work with the school.
"She works in small group centers with the children in the classroom and also works to help prepare materials during lessons in the classroom," he said. "I've even seen her working on the bulletin boards in the hallways, keeping up with those. She also mentors the students."
Strauch has been volunteering at Cape Elementary for the last three years. "I learned about the program through a brochure at a senior center, and went to the Piper Center to apply and got my training," said Strauch. "My grandson moved out of state, and I liked be around little ones. I would recommend the program to other volunteers; I like to be one-on-one with the children."
She likes working with the teachers, too.
"They are all very nice," Strauch said. "There's a lot of things I learned from the teachers, along with the children. Some of their hobbies, the art work they do and how the teachers get information from the teachers."
She volunteers four days a week.
"I feel good when I get here, they (students) are learning and I'm learning, I feel good when I help them," she said.
North Fort Myers resident Pat Breeding has been involved in the program for seven years, and earlier this year was named one of the three top volunteers by the Lee County School District for 2011/2012 year - and as the No. 1 Senior Volunteer in the county.
They call her "Miss Pat" and she rarely misses a day at J. Colin English Elementary School, inspiring staff and students alike.
Of "Miss Pat" you cannot hear enough praise, she has worked in a variety of classrooms at the school, including kindergarten.
"It's a great program. It"s very rewarding, and with kindergarten, every day it is something new," Breeding said.
Principal Joe Williams III of J. Colin English Elementary said, "The foster grandparents are awesome, including Miss Pat. They come in, give up their time and are compassionate and very patient toward the students. The students really love to see them come through the door and assist them in center activities."
Willoughby said she has volunteers at most area schools. "But we could always use more.
"I love the volunteers," Willoughby continued. She has been program director for 13 years now. "I love the stories they tell. It's so uplifting."
The process to become part of the program includes filling out an application, then they do a background and sexual predator check. Then there is training.
"The biggest requirement is that they love children," Willoughby said.
Each year there is a party and an activity for all of the volunteers.
For information on the program, call Willoughby at the Dr. Piper Center for Social Services Inc. at 332-5346, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.