Herald JournalHerald Journal, March 17, 2003

'School grandmas' facing budget ax

By Lynda Jensen

With sorrow and concern, two dozen senior citizens gathered to rally Wednesday in Howard Lake behind a program on the chopping block for Gov. Pawlenty's budget, the foster grandparent program.

The program involves senior citizen volunteers giving one-on-one reading assistance to young students at the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted School District and Head Start in Montrose, among many other districts, said Diane Shuck of Lutheran Social Service, which helps administer the program.

Seniors involved in the program hail from Howard Lake, Annandale, Kimball, Dassel and other towns, all vexed about the end of a long-standing program coming to an end that brought so many in returns to both seniors and young people, for so little.

Foster grandparents give young children the chance to catch up, especially those who come from a single parent family, or who are stragglers in learning, Shuck said.

In this overly busy world, children are frequently getting lost ­ and the ones who lag behind, who need attention the most ­ will lose, commented Lucille Lahr of Howard Lake.

"Teachers don't have the time," commented Darla Fisher of Howard Lake. Fisher was close to tears when she thought of the program ending.

"Seniors are an excellent resource," Shuck added.

"Parents are so busy now," concurred middle school volunteer Sally Custer of Annandale.

Foster grandparents help to fill a void, Custer said. They can be a comfortable safe haven, and a source of encouragement for young students, she said. "I'm a leaning shoulder for them."

Class sizes are getting larger, and foster grandparents helped to offset this, Custer said.

"They do a lot of reading," Shuck said. The seniors also help with various tasks ­ at a nominal cost, since the payment is so little.

"It's really a stipend," Shuck said, saying that $2.65 wasn't enough to be called a true wage.

Seniors also enjoy the obvious benefits of being foster grandparents, in the form of warm receptions, or holding a little hand.

"It makes us useful and fills a need," Fisher said.

"Those who are looking at cutting do not fully understand what the whole program is about," Lahr said.

Foster grandparents help teachers to accomplish so many things, LaVerna Horsch of Howard Lake commented.

In fact, Horsch was surprised to have several seventh, eighth, and ninth graders voluntarily share lunch with her recently, saying that young people appeared to be thirsting for attention.

"They are like sponges," Fisher said.

"I will miss working with the boys," commented Gerald Vogelsang of Howard Lake regretfully, who works as a foster grandparent at the Village Ranch in Cokato.

Several foster grandparents can recall being picked out of a crowd on the sidewalk by little voices saying hello to "grandma."

Fisher recalled receiving Christmas gifts from her students.

In addition, foster grandparents deliver stories about the good old days that little ones are far removed from.

Lahr remembers telling little ones about drawing water from a well, and keeping butter cool by lowering it inside a pail to the bottom of a well ­ something that mystifies young students, she said.

When she asked for volunteers to bake Christmas cookies, she said she had more volunteers than she could shake a stick at, Lahr said.

The program's elimination caught many by surprise, even though they expected tough cuts to be made.

"I was devastated," commented Donna Vogelsang, Gerald's wife, when she heard the news of the program being cut.

Vogelsang is from Howard Lake and assists the Head Start program in Howard Lake at St. John's Church. Head Start is geared for preschoolers.

She is fully aware of the sharp need for assistance with young children in the Head Start program because she was a teacher for Head Start for 25 years. "I know the need," she said.

"It was a shock to all of us," Lahr said of the news about the program cut.

Custer described the news as "disastrous." "The need is getting greater and greater," she added.

They didn't expect the program to be cut so much that it wouldn't exist any longer in rural areas, Shuck said.

In addition, the Vogelsangs depend on the small amount they make from the program to help pay for their prescription programs, Donna said.

Foster grandparents will continue to exist in the metro area, but will be cut entirely from Greater Minnesota, Shuck said. This is because state funding makes it possible to pay for outreach into rural areas such as Howard Lake, she said.

Approximately 45 percent of the program's funding is from the state for Greater Minnesota and 55 percent from the federal government, Shuck said.

The likely end of other programs, too

Also scheduled for elimination are the senior companion program and senior dining, the latter of which has been in place for about 20 years.

Shuck is unsure what seniors will do to replace the programs. In particular, the senior companion program has kept some seniors out of nursing homes because of the assistance they receive from other seniors, she said.

One simple statement by Donna Vogelsang summed up so many seniors: "I'll miss being with those little children."

"It's very fulfilling to take and be able to help a child," Lahr said.

It's a good bet the children will miss their foster grandparents, too.

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