BERLIN – As children shrieked and ran across the playground at the Berlin Head Start Center this week, they did so under the watchful eyes of a trio of senior citizens. The women moved slowly among the boisterous crowd, stopping to tie shoes, accept hugs and even pick flowers with their young charges.
“I love children,” said Romaine Briddell, the senior who’s been at Berlin Head Start the longest. “I love working with them. For the elderly, it gives us a purpose to get up in the morning. It gives us something to do.”
Briddell and her peers, Clarenda Davis and Joyce Pitts, are all members of SHORE UP! Inc.’s Foster Grandparent Program. The initiative, known for “building bridges across generations,” is part of the National Senior Service Corps and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Locally, SHORE UP! has sponsored the program since 1976. Here in Worcester County, there are seven foster grandparents working in area head start centers.
“Most of them are retirees,” said Joyce Farrare, director of the Foster Grandparent Program for SHORE UP! Inc. “They just have a love for children. They want to see them develop and grow.”
She said the program was open to those 55 and up with limited income, as a grant does provide the senior volunteers–who are required to pass a background check–with a small hourly stipend. Farrare currently works with 70 seniors in the program, which operates in Wicomico, Worcester, Somerset, Kent, Dorchester and Caroline counties. While foster grandparents typically work in head start facilities between 15 and 35 hours a week, Farrare said in Wicomico County they also worked in public schools.
“The importance of the program for seniors is to reduce isolation and encourage volunteerism,” Farrare said. “For children it’s school readiness.”
At Berlin Head Start, foster grandparents help teachers manage the dozens of pre-schoolers who attend each day. They also work one-on-one with children with special needs. Farrare said oftentimes, the seniors worked to support kids who struggled socially and emotionally, as well as those who were new to the facility.
“Sometimes it takes weeks if not months to make the adjustment,” Farrare said, adding that it was hard for kids to transition from spending their days at home to spending them in a classroom full of other children. “The foster grandparent would be that cushion.”
Stacey Brittingham Jones, site coordinator at Berlin Head Start, said foster grandparents had a big impact on children.
“They’re a great asset,” she said. “They provide assistance to those in need. You can see a difference in the child.”
She said the seniors were always eager to help out any way they could.
“You ask them to be here at 9 they’ll be here at 8:30,” she said with a laugh. “They’re caring, dependable and they just really enjoy what they do.”
That’s clear to anyone who watches them interact with the children. Kids argue over who will get to work one-on-one with the seniors and beg to sit in their chairs — pretending to be Mommom — when they’re absent.
“I love the children,” Pitts said. “I enjoy being around them.”
Pitts spent years caring for her grandchildren in Berlin and decided to apply to be a foster grandparent last year. She started in December and intends to do it as long as she can.
“It’s love, compassion and caring for the children,” she said.
Davis too said she was thrilled to take part in the program.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” she said, adding that she liked being able care for children who might not have the best home lives. “You don’t know what they go through.”
Briddell feels the same way.
“You never know if they’re going to get a hug or an ‘I love you,’” she said. “We’re here to do that. I never had kids of my own so this is a good thing for me.”
Though the women will get a brief summer vacation as head start centers close for summer vacation, they’ll be back in action in late August. Farrare encourages any area seniors interested in applying to participate in the program this fall to contact SHORE UP! Inc. now, as it will take some time to complete the necessary paperwork.