- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

KALISPELL, Mont. (AP) - It’s been a year of heartfelt hugs for Linda Gimbel.

Ever since the 72-year-old Kalispell grandmother became a volunteer Foster Grandparent last year, Gimbel has been “Grandma Linda” at Russell Elementary School.

“I just love it,” she said about helping in the classroom. “It’s wonderful to feel needed again. I love all the hugs.”

Gimbel is one of just three older residents who work with the Western Montana Area IV Agency on Aging Foster Grandparent Program based in Polson. There are two volunteers in Kalispell and one in Columbia Falls.

“We should have a bigger presence here,” said Micky Snyder, director of the Foster Grandparent Program. “With a population of 90,000-plus, one of the underserved areas is Flathead County.”

Having the word “foster” in the program name can be a bit misleading, Snyder said. The program has nothing to do with older residents raising foster children in the traditional sense of the word. It’s a federally funded program in which those who qualify have the opportunity to mentor young children with special or exceptional needs, most often in a school setting.

Foster grandparents must be 55 or older and are required to commit to at least 15 hours of service per week. Participants must be of limited income to be eligible for the modest $2.65-per-hour stipend.

Gimbel said the extra money, about $200 per month for her, gives her an extra measure of financial security.

“But I’d be doing this even if I didn’t get paid,” she said, noting that she is reimbursed for mileage and gets paid for holidays.

The heart of the program is the one-on-one attention the foster grandparents can provide.

Patricia Panique, the Russell kindergarten teacher whose classroom is Gimbel’s domain, said having the extra help “has made my life as a teacher so much easier.

“The kids get so much more attention than when it is just me by myself,” Panique said. “Linda not only helps to keep me organized, she anticipates our classroom needs, provides extra help for the kids, works one-on-one with students on their learning goals and gives lots of hugs … Having an extra pair of hands and eyes make the classroom run much smoother.”

Gimbel volunteers five hours a day, five days a week. She said she has found her niche with kindergarten-age students.

Foster grandparents don’t need formal experience in tutoring or mentoring. They receive pre-service orientation and training, Snyder said.

“You just need a love of children,” she added.

Snyder supports foster grandparents with ongoing communication as questions arise and encouragement is needed.

The program is as beneficial for the foster grandparents as it is for the children receiving the special attention. “An active person is a healthier person,” Snyder said.

The Foster Grandparent Program was developed in 1965 with 800 volunteers in more than 45 institutions. In 1969 amendments to the Older Americans Act gave full administrative and funding authority to the Agency on Aging. Today nearly 30,000 volunteers nationwide help more than 280,000 children.

Western Montana Area VI Agency on Aging covers six counties, including Flathead, with its Foster Grandparent Program. There are currently 41 foster grandparents throughout those counties, but Snyder said at least a half-dozen are still needed.

The program includes pre-kindergarten to youths age 21, and can include church preschools, homeless shelters and even the juvenile detention system, in addition to traditional public schools.


Information from: Daily Inter Lake, https://www.dailyinterlake.com

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