A partnership between Foster Grandparents and Kansas Operation Military Kids provides seniors with information to assist military children, who face many unique challenges and opportunities.
JUNCTION CITY, Kan. – Ten women, with various backgrounds and life experiences, gathered around a table at the Bicentennial Manor in Junction City, Kan., on a rainy Veterans Day morning. The group read aloud a book about five children, the bonds they made with one another and the experiences they all shared in having a parent who served in the military.
The five children, nicknamed Smiley, Gonzo, Lo, Oboe and Soupy, are the main characters of the book, “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S,” which stands for Child Heroes Attached to Military Personnel. Just as the children get to know one another on the base where they live and become friends, the book goes on to read:
“With such special friendships, how can things be so hard? Life on base was fine until things started to unravel like a ball of yarn…”
Deployment. Medical retirement. Moving…again.
The 10 women, who all belong to the Foster Grandparents of the North Central-Flint Hills Area Agency on Aging, continued to read the book to find out more about the characters, but more importantly, how to apply the things they learned to real-life experiences. K-State Research and Extension and Kansas Operation Military Kids (OMK) staff used the book to train the foster grandparents on how to more effectively reach out to military children in the schools where they work.
The training is one of the many ways OMK is helping bring awareness to National Military Family Appreciation Month, which is celebrated each year in November. In addition to the training, each foster grandparent was given a set of books and student activity packets to take to schools for a special curriculum they will deliver next Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Foster Grandparents program
The Foster Grandparents program allows low-income people, age 55 and older, to work in public schools to tutor and mentor at-risk children — children who might come from a single-parent family, have a parent who is incarcerated or have a parent serving in the military, for example.
Suesan Harrington, director of the program through the North Central-Flint Hills Area Agency on Aging covering Riley, Geary, Dickinson and Saline counties, said the foster grandparents go through background checks, physicals and more than 20 hours of trainings before they are able to work in the schools.
The foster grandparents work 15 to 40 hours per week helping elementary children learn, for example, skills in English, reading and math. The foster grandparents, if they meet the income requirement, are paid $2.65 per hour for their service, but Harrington said for most, getting out and interacting with the children means more than the little money they earn.
“Their role is more about developing relationships with the children,” Harrington said. “Typically, these at-risk children have lower self-esteem, so it’s about building their self-esteem and self-confidence. It’s nice to see the grandparents blossom, too, because their self-esteem also grows.”
“The Little C.H.A.M.P.S” training, Harrington said, is important because military children are everywhere in the state. Particularly in Geary County schools though, 80 percent of children come from military families. So far, a total of 31 foster grandparents have learned the about the book and curriculum in Junction City, Manhattan and Salina.
The Foster Grandparents program in Kansas, Harrington said, is part of a national program that will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2015. It is funded through the Corporation of National and Community Service.
The foster grandparent experience
Judy Meyers of Junction City has been a foster grandparent for two years at Westwood Elementary School and puts in 24 to 30 hours each week. Because she works with kindergarteners and first graders, Meyers said her days as a foster grandparent consist of teaching the ABCs, how to count to 100, simple addition and subtraction, and how to get logged into a computer. Meyers uses stickers as a way to reward children for improving in their schoolwork.
“Every day we make progress, and I make a big deal of it,” Meyers said of the children with whom she works. “They love stickers. The boys like the cars. The girls like the princesses. I’ve got every sticker known to modern man.”
Meyers, a native of New Jersey, said she moved to Kansas in 1976. When she had a shoulder replacement a few years ago, she met another lady who had been a foster grandparent and recommended that Meyers try it out.
Meyers once worked as an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) professional and said she has always enjoyed helping people. Currently, her rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia make it hard to get around at times, but her mind is sharp.
“I’m still helping people, just in a different way,” Meyers said. “I love what I’m doing. The teachers are great and treat us well.”
Meyers said many of the children she sees are from single-parent families or have a parent in the military, and they must deal with different issues when mom or dad are gone. Sometimes, they are required to move frequently and start over, which understandably, can be hard.
“Just like all of us, we have friends come and go in life,” Meyers said. “I do a lot of hugging and high-fiving.”
Lending a hand
Children often times latch on to their foster grandparents, because they view them as a friend and trusted adult. Many military and other at-risk children live away from their real grandparents and grow to enjoy the company of their assigned foster grandparent, said Kali Summers of AmeriCorps VISTA, Kansas OMK and Kansas State University’s Institute for the Health and Security of Military Families. She leads “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S.” trainings.
“It’s really a natural partnership, and we believe this intergenerational work is really beneficial to these kids,” Summers said.
In Kansas, Summers said, there are military kids in every single county. Many are related to an installation such as Fort Riley, Fort Leavenworth and McConnell Air Force base, but there are also several National Guard children dispersed throughout the state.
“Working with National Guard kids is especially important, because they aren’t directly connected to an installation and may not have the same resources accessible to them,” Summers said.
Because of the military children in schools throughout the state, Kansas OMK has provided many of “The Little C.H.A.M.P.S.” kits, including books and curriculum supplements, for children and teachers. They are not only meant to help military children, but help other children to learn and understand some of the things their military-affiliated classmates might experience. Summers said what is also great about the book is that it includes several different studies.
“It includes sections on music, counseling, math, science, language arts and social studies,” she said. “So it really applies to all parts of a curriculum that teachers use.”
In addition to the Foster Grandparents partnership, K-State Research and Extension has helped get the books and curriculum supplements into schools, Summers said, as Kansas OMK is working with extension agents and affiliate organizations in Kansas to get a foothold into schools in all areas of the state. Ann Domsch, Kansas OMK project coordinator, has also worked with several schools in implementing the curriculum.
For more information about Kansas OMK, visit the program's website. Or, visit the national Foster Grandparents program's website.