Imagine a child struggling with school work, being bullied by others, lacking attention from busy parents, and feeling little hope. Where do children go when they feel lost, afraid and alone?
Community Action of Greater Indianapolis (CAGI) is an advocate for children and people of all ages, a place where they can turn. CAGI has been filling the gap for children who need guidance and love and, at the same time, it’s filling the emptiness of some Seniors, often retired, who want to feel valued and serve others. And, it’s a little like magic.
CAGI brings children and Seniors together across Indianapolis in schools, shelters, hospitals, boys and girls clubs, daycares and more through a Foster Grandparent program. And CAGI has been creating this magic for 47 years.
“We do this to help the grandparents, our Seniors, leave their homes and get out into the community,” says Shelida Kerr, director of CAGI’s Foster Grandparent Program. “And we do this to help the children. So many children have needs of literacy. Some just need a hug. And the grandparents can give them what they need. Those children just love those grandparents.”
It’s about changing lives – one child at a time – and it’s part of CAGI’s main mission – to help people become self-reliant and self-sufficient. That journey can start with struggling children.
“There are so many who won’t succeed without more individual attention. If we did not have this program, a lot of our children in this community would remain lost,” states Ms. Kerr. “The grandparents are sometimes the only ones they have to talk to now. The children confide in them, tell them things that are going on in their lives. And the grandparents are like an intervention… a safe haven…listening to them and letting them know that everything is going to be okay.”
Roberta Fortes is one of those foster grandparents. She’s in her late 70’s now and has been serving as a Foster Grandparent for ten years. Fortes urges other Seniors to join her in impacting the lives of children and impacting their own lives.
“My dad always said when you retire, retire *to* something, not *from* something,” says Fortes. “Being a foster grandparent has extended my life. It keeps me active. It gives me something to look forward to every day. And I just love it.”
Fortes loves the fourth-grade children she ‘grandparents,’ four days a week, at Snacks Crossing Elementary School in Pike Township. She is assigned to focus on helping a few children in one class, Damonte and Oscar.
But Fortes also helps the teacher with instruction, reading, and the needs of other children in the whole class. “I get to invest in children and their education. If you don’t have an education, you can’t qualify for anything in this world today. Nothing,” she says.
Fortes has grandmotherly advice for busy, hard-working parents. “We send work home for these kids and they don’t even finish it. A lot of parents are never seeing it,” she worries. “Parents must do your part, too. Visit the school. See what’s going on with your children. Be aware of what they’re doing. Take time for your children.”
When Fortes pours time and instruction into kids in her class, their transformation touches her. “The light bulb goes on when they get what I am trying to help them with. Their eyes just light up! You see a grin on their face and my heart just swells.”
CAGI’s Foster Grandparent program boosts children’s confidence and helps them cope with the burdens of a sometimes-troubled childhood. “They really appreciate having someone else to go to,” says Shante Davis.
Davis is the fourth-grade teacher at Snacks Crossing Elementary in whose class Fortes serves. “I really appreciate Ms. Fortes. There have been times when my kids have been bullied or they have something personal and they may be uncomfortable speaking to me, but they will go to her to talk about it. They are missing the nurturing that grandparents can give.”
That means more people listening to children. More people really hearing them. And more people responding to their educational and life-learning needs.
Davis says, “I wish that every school and every class had the opportunity to have a foster grandmother or grandfather because it’s so beneficial to the kids who may not have that at home.”
“Yes, a lot of parents are working two or three jobs and may not have the chance to interact with kids as much as they would like to,” notes Dajuan Major, the assistant principal at Snacks Crossing. “CAGI’s Foster Grandparent program is a huge benefit for the school, providing students with the attention they so desperately need and deserve at school and at home.”
Major continues, “These grandparents are able to focus more attention on some of the challenges children face academically, socially and sometimes behaviorally.” He emphasizes the importance of learning from the older generation. “Grandparents aren’t just fostering academics. They are fostering how to be respectful and how to treat people. Those lessons are beneficial to our kids, too.”
CAGI’s Foster Grandparent program has more than 50 Seniors, 55 and older, at 28 different sites. The Seniors receive a stipend for serving the children. But CAGI knows there is a massive need to help more children. And, the non-profit needs more funding to impact more children’s lives.
“We are down in funding. We could use money for transportation for some of the grandparents. Money for a bus pass. Reimbursement for their gas,” Kerr says. “We need to fund those small things” to help current foster grandparents stay in the program and to encourage more to join.
Kerr has so much passion for the program that she leads because, “Foster Grandparents give children a reason for tomorrow. So many of our children do not believe that they can make it to the next day. So many of them tell the grandparents that they can’t do it.” Some think they can’t even finish school. Foster grandparents give them love, hope and a brighter future.
If you want to invest in children and support a program that helps them learn life lessons from “the older generation,” please email Shelida Kerr at email@example.com or call her at 317-524-6860.
Or, if you are a Senior who wants to feel the magic of transforming children’s lives, contact Ms. Kerr to learn more about what it takes to be a foster grandparent.
Join CAGI in becoming an advocate for some of the most vulnerable – those who need us most – our children.