Voyager Elementary School has something many other public schools do not: a grandpa and a grandma.
Most days, Grandma Lois Peterson and Grandpa Bob Foss can be found in the hallways working with school children. They help with numbers and reading comprehension and hand out friendly comments.
"Hi, Grandma Lois," a cross-legged girl sings out as Peterson pushes her walker through the hall.
"Hi, are you working hard on something?" Peterson inquires.
"Reading," the girl says, in a tone that implies balls and chains.
Their titles, Grandpa and Grandma, are always capitalized, as they are official titles given by the Central Minnesota Foster Grandparent Program, a federal program administered in Minnesota by Catholic Charities in St. Cloud. The program began in 1965, enlisting low-income seniors to teach in the schools. To qualify, seniors must be at least 55 years old and fall within certain income guidelines.
On this Thursday, Peterson is helping a girl with reading comprehension. Third-grader Kayla DeBlieck has brought the book she's been reading, "Marsha is Only a Flower," about a girl focused on soloing in a ballet recital.
Peterson, whose background is in education, talks with Kayla about how the narrator has been bugged by her younger sister.
"Has anyone ever bugged you?" Peterson inquires.
Kayla echoes the sentiments of anyone who has ever had a sibling.
"Yes. My brother," she says.
Wanted: Grandpas and Grandmas
Down two halls, Foss sits at a small table with a kindergartener, helping him count backwards and forwards. Sometimes children who don't attend preschool or haven't had family members work with them lag behind the others.
The 16 counties covered by the program, including Douglas, have 175 foster grandparents, said area supervisor Pat Scherf. That includes two Grandmas at Garfield Elementary School. She would like more.
"We know it can improve people's physical and mental health," Scherf said. "It gets them out and active, reduces isolation that can come with later years. It helps their brains to stay active. ... Many people would say they probably wouldn't even get dressed if they didn't have to go to school."
Foster grandparents receive a stipend, $2.65 an hour, plus transportation reimbursement at 40 cents a mile. They work from 15 to 40 hours a week, depending on their preference. They also receive 100 hours of paid leave a year.
Lobbyists are working to lower the number of weekly required hours and to convince Congress to pay these grandparents $3 an hour. Their stipend started out as minimum wage, but never kept pace, Scherf said. Several years ago, Congress agreed to pay $3 an hour, but never budgeted the money for it, she said.
The money is untaxed, and does not affect a senior's income-based benefits.
"Some literally need our stipend because they only earn this tiny little pot of money from Social Security, like $300 a month," Scherf said. "Some of our Grandmas and Grandpas were never employed outside the home; they were farmer's wives, or farmers who didn't pay in."
Foster grandparents work with all children of all ages, from birth to age 21, depending on what is available where they live. In metro areas, foster grandparents can do everything from rock newborns to mentor teenagers. In rural areas, they mostly work in schools.
"Our town is such that there are so many things for older people to do," Peterson said. "We are crying for foster grandparents. There are so many kids. We don't want them to get lost."
Added Foss, a retired economics professor raised by a single mom: "Especially a male because so many of them don't have a male in their homes."
Love and academics
Being elderly can present some challenges. Foss, 75, fell on the playground. He wasn't hurt, and was grateful he didn't land on any of the children. Peterson, 80, had to take time off when she was hospitalized. The children did not forget her, flooding her hospital room with get-well cards.
"You get attached to the kids and they do to us, too," Peterson said.
Foss realized quickly that the benefits work both ways.
"I thought I would be contributing," he said. "One of the things that shocked me was how rewarding it is. ... It's similar to the payback a mother gets with her newborn baby."
Staying at home can get depressing, Peterson said.
"Here the kids are full of smiles and full of energy and it just makes us feel good," she said.
Even watching the kids run is enjoyable, Foss said.
"We as grandparents realize we have energy we didn't have before just because of the stimulation of the kids," he said.
Sometimes, the kids think Grandpa Bob and Grandma Lois are married to each other. They aren't. Foss is married, and Peterson is a widow.
Foss grew up in Wadena and spent time in the military. He began work as a foster grandparent last spring. Peterson grew up on a farm in South Dakota with no running water or electricity. She worked as a teacher, and as a paraprofessional in then-Washington Elementary School. She has worked as a foster grandparent for nine years.
They each have grandchildren, and Peterson has four great-grandchildren who have attended Voyager.
"At the beginning of the year, the third grader said, 'Now, you have to treat me as you do everyone else,'" Peterson said with amusement. "'Not so many hugs.'"
Foster grandparents can't give opinions about politics or religion with the children. They don't administer discipline and they are mandated reporters if they hear about abuse. They undergo background checks.
They do not require teaching credentials.
"All you have to do is love children," Peterson said.
Voyager Principal Dana Christenson said classroom teachers identify areas where students need extra help, and the foster grandparents are able to work with them one-on-one with flashcards or other tools.
"Often times we can find the students are catching up with their peers," he said. "Both of our foster grandparents do such a good job of providing the instruction coupled with the TLC and the kids just eat that up. Sometimes the kids need the love just as much as the academic practice."