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LOCKPORT- As a foster grandparent, Alice Jenkins feels rejuvenated by the hugs and math know-how that come from the children she helps as one of the 72 senior volunteers in Niagara County elementary schools.
As the mother of six, grandmother of 18 and great-grandmother of 12, she was pleased to discover that her work helped her tune into her own progeny.
"I began to notice that there was one in my family that was kind of shy. It opened my eyes up to see and realize that I was able to help my own grandchild," said Jenkins, 65, a volunteer for four years. "We began to work one-on-one. He was able to bring his grades up. His confidence was built back up."
Teachers credited Foster Grandparents for being one of the critical ingredients that helped their student charges move up to the next grade. This is according to surveys from the 32 of the Niagara County schools and child care centers with the volunteers assigned two, sometimes three, children in need of extra attention.
"It is absolutely astonishing how many children are moving on to the next grade because of that one-on-one time," said Karen Smith, coordinator at the Health Association of Niagara County. "It's wonderful to see the kids bond with these volunteers. It's a good reason to get up in the morning."
The agency has been administering the program since 1972, about seven years after it was founded by the federal government as one option for Senior Corps community volunteers 55 and older. The local roster, which includes some in their 90s, pays a small stipend of $2.65 an hour. People are assigned to three and four year olds in Head Start and kindergarten through second grade.
"We're always looking for more volunteers," Smith said. "I actually have a waiting list of teachers and schools who want more vounteers."
How did you get involved?
I had a former friend - she is with the Lord now - that had suggested for me to join. She had been doing it for quite a while. Her name was Margaret Scarborough. She and I belong to the same church. I teach Sunday school, and I'm always with children.
More or less, she asked me what I was doing at the time. "So you talked about gong back to school. Why not go back to school this way?"
I wanted to go back to school. I never decided on what I would take up. I just thought, "Well OK, Lord. Whatever you would have me to do."
So they started me in kindergarten. It worked out just right for me.
What was your profession?
I retired from Lockport Presbyterian home. More or less like housekeeping.
You now work with a teacher in a first-rade classroom at Charles Upson Elementary School?
I will have two assigned kids that I would really work and focus with. It helps build up their confidence and encourage them that they can do the task that's set before them. Some of them have very low self-esteem. Some of them are kind of upset because they're leaving Mom.
I let them know that they are important and that they can do and achieve anything. Once they know that they can trust you, they warm up pretty much to you.
You are well-known at school?
Pretty much the whole school calls me, "Grandma Alice." Even down to the principal calls me, 'Grandma Alice.'
What kind of changes have you seen in children you've worked with?
Their social skills have improved. They were able to interact with the other children. They lost their shyness and they were more open and willing to participate.
How did you help make that happen?
I let them know that we're all there, that we're friends. Writing, reading, drawing pictures. Sometimes just sitting there and listening to them say how they feel. Letting them know that I hear you. The eye contact.
I share with them some of things about my childhood life. I share with them about my grandchildren. I would tell them my one grandson that attends the same school. How he coped with it and how we worked together.
A lot of times I would sit right at the table so they don't feel like they're being excluded with the rest of the class. A lot of times, I would take them back to the back of the room where my desk is. It takes maybe about 10 or 15 minutes if that. Then they say, "I got it."
So a lot of your work is about helping kids feel confident about learning?
A lot of times they know. They have a little trouble expressing themselves. They are afraid to come out and say it. I find that a lot of them are very intelligent little people.
What other signs are there that what you do works?
They would draw pictures and write me little notes and all the hugs. That is so rewarding when you walk in the classroom, just surrounded by these little people. I get so many cards and little pictures.
Then when you see progress begin to take place. Maybe they couldn't pronounce a word. You see them trying. Finally, they have achieved it. "Look Grandma!" All you can do is give them a high five and say, "I knew you can do it." Every day it's like a new reward that someone will come and give you. It's like a seed. You plant a seed in the garden. You water it and weed. By the time June is here, the little garden has already blossomed and bloomed.

Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Bruce Andriatch, Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com