- Associated Press - Friday, July 29, 2016

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) - Some of the kids Emma Payton works with are too young to speak, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

“Mine can’t say ‘grandma’ yet, but they say ‘baw-baw,’” said Payton, a lifelong Peorian who works with young toddlers ages 15 months through 2 years at South Peoria’s Neighborhood House.

Payton, 80, is a full-time foster grandmother at the community daycare center, which offers services to children as young as 6 weeks old. The day-to-day involves all the essentials of child rearing - from changing dirty diapers to rocking infants to sleep at naptime - and provides children the opportunity to interact with seniors, who take on the role of grandparents for up to 40 hours per week.

A grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother many times over, Payton said the benefits of working in the program are twofold; the children and volunteers contribute to each others’ lives. After 11 years of working at schools and daycare centers around the city, she has extended that nurturing role to countless children - many of whom come from single-parent homes, or may not have the chance to see their natural grandparents regularly.

It’s a gap, Payton said, the foster grandparents try to fill.



“These are children who need attention,” she said.

More than 50 seniors work at 21 different sites - including public schools and daycare centers - across the city. The program is sponsored by the Peoria Citizens Committee for Economic Opportunity, which receives state and federal funding to administer several community action initiatives with the aim of bolstering economic development in underprivileged neighborhoods.

Over the last 40 years, the foster grandparent program has been pairing seniors with children who need the influence of an older generation, said program director Stephanie Green. And although a lack of state funding has recently put a strain on managing day-to-day operations, she said, it continues to provide a vital service to the community.

“When you get lemons, you have to make lemonade,” Green said.

Participating seniors receive a small, tax-free stipend for transportation and household goods, Green said, but the money isn’t much - which means having love for children is one of the job requirements.

Down the hallway from the nursery where Payton works, a group of about 25 kindergarteners through 4th graders line up at opposing walls in a gymnasium for a game of dodgeball. A shoelace is loose and timeout is abruptly called by the blocker, whose sole job is to guard a hula hoop fortress positioned in the center of each team’s side from a barrage of rubber balls.

Foster grandmothers Rose Price, 62, and Jessie Lunini, 76, smile quietly from a row of folding chairs as the cacophony of screams and laughter echo through the gym. After each round, kids return to the sidelines to brag and hug their foster grandmas.

“We’re all grandparents, so we just fall into it naturally,” said Lunini, who has 16 grandchildren of her own.

While fun and games are part of the routine for the foster grandparents, Lunini said the program allows the children to learn vital skills. She recalled helping grade-schoolers learn their multiplication tables and cursive handwriting at the Thomas Jefferson Primary School last school year.

As for Price, she figures that she’s already a grandma: So, why not? Plus, she said it’s the best job she’s ever had.

“I feel like a queen being a grandma,” Price said. “It’s just something special.”

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/29IMspU

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Information from: Journal Star, https://pjstar.com

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