‘Like a family’: Students, ‘foster grandmas’ bond

CLARENDON — Their professional names are Nana, Mom-Mom and Grandma Maggie, and they’re in it for the hugs.

They’re four of the infamous Foster Grandmas that serve throughout Rutland County schools. Every day they volunteer at Clarendon Elementary School, offering homework help, advice and support.

“No experience necessary,” said Deb Suttle, also known as “Mom-Mom.” “The hugs are the best.”

“There’s 20 students in the second grade,” said Lori “Nana” Coons. “A teacher couldn’t possibly notice every little child that has some other tiny problem. … It’s my job to see what else is going on. To be an extra pair of eyes and ears.”

Foster Grandparents is a national program developed in 1966 that places income-qualifying residents age 55 and older in schools and day care centers as teaching assistants and general support, providing that loving touch only grandma and grandpa can provide.

“It’s like a family here,” Suttle said.

After a background check and finger prints, all foster grandmas and grandpas are paired with teachers based on what the teachers need and what the volunteers prefer.

“We have grandparents that have been there for 20 years,” said Foster Grandparents Rutland Coordinator Deb Roy. “They’re very devoted and very caring. They act as mentors and role models.”

“If she’s not here, that’s the first thing (the students) ask me,” said third-grade teacher Shannon Alexander said of Castleton native Maggie Holden, or “Grandma Maggie.”

Suttle has been a foster grandma for the past two years, and works in Jamie Therriault’s fourth-grade classroom.

“She’s been with me my whole teaching career,” Therriault said. “I felt like because Mom-Mom was a teacher, she had perspective that I was just barely seeing and noticing. When Mom-Mom came in, I had the opportunity to do so much more. … Every student can have an extra set of eyes, or someone to talk through something. It really does operate like a family.”

“Jamie and I are best friends,” Suttle said. “They gave me the option of going to kindergarten, and I said, ‘I can’t leave Jamie!’”

Coons said she became a foster grandma after her own two grandchildren had grown up almost 11 years ago. She attends Kerry Valente’s second-grade class every day.

“I always choose second grade,” said Coons, who has also assisted in special education classes. “Second grade is the best … their personalities are developing, and they’re so smart … I converse with them all the time. They’re my kind of people.”

“If there’s a little child whose feelings may be hurt, or has been crying, I try to find out what the problem is and try to help them,” Coons said.

Coons has missed very few days in the past two years, and spends “Nana-Time” every day reading aloud to the class, among other duties.

“She’s got some phenomenal skills,” Valente said. “When she’s away from school, she’s thinking about school and how she can better serve kids. … I tell her she’s a right arm to me. … I’ve had two of the best years of my whole life (with her).”

Coons sits in on guided reading lessons, serves as a math tutor, organizes notes and homework, and is constantly attending to the students, Valente said.

“Every day (after Nana-time), the kids tell her ‘Good Job, Nana,’” Valente said.

Holden found the program seven years ago. She volunteered in day care, grade school and at Rutland Intermediate School before she came to Alexander’s third-grade class.

Holden bonded with Alexander during Alexander’s first year as a kindergarten teacher, so when she moved up to third grade, Holden went along too.

“She is essential,” Alexander said. “It was nice to have somebody wise, somebody knowledgeable about children to lend an ear. She roots for the underdog: she sits with them, works with them … and they want to make her proud.”

Every day, she takes her seat at “Grandma Maggie’s Table” right up at the front of the classroom, where she can see all of her “grandchildren” and tend to them as necessary.

“Correcting of papers, correcting of folders,” Holden said. Holden, Coons and Suttle eat lunch with the students, help keep the classrooms sparkling and take students out for recess so their teachers have enough time and energy to concentrate on creating personalized lesson plans and managing student learning curves.

The Grandmas go on field trips, de-escalate anger situations and comfort students when they need emotional support, so issues and conflicts are addressed immediately.

It’s not just the students that the Foster Grandmas form relationships with: Teachers always request a foster grandparent for their classroom, and grandparents are unwilling to leave the teachers and age groups they’ve bonded with, the grandmas agreed.

But now, foster grandmas are in short supply, with only four at Clarendon Elementary.

“You just have to love kids, you have to have a lot of patience and want to get out there,” Roy said. “We have many more openings than we have grandparents. … You’ll love it. You feel wanted and needed, and the kids definitely need the encouragement and support from the seniors. Kids win, grandparents win.”