VOLUNTEERS Kids, foster grandparents draw from each other
'They're my heart,' one foster grandparent said of the children she serves.
By ROGER G. SMITH
CITY HALL REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Virginia Coonce of Hubbard survived a near fatal bout with cancer in the late 1990s and knew she wanted to give her time to others.
"It [time] wasn't supposed to be mine to give," she said.
She was a volunteer at Ronald McDonald House and ran into Venessa Foster, who was coordinating the start of the Mahoning County Foster Grandparent Program.
Coonce was sent to mentor and tutor second-grade pupils in reading at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in Youngstown.
At first, she wasn't sure the setting was for her.
"When I got in there, I realized I was there for a purpose," Coonce said. "You feel the strength of those little children."
About 50 volunteers and potential new recruits gathered Thursday in Mill Creek Park to celebrate the program's first anniversary and strengthen the effort's second year.
The program is good for the kids and their foster grandparents, said Foster, a retired supervisor at Mahoning County Jobs and Family Services.
Senior citizens with something to offer have a reason to stay active, and kids get the attention they need, she said.
"That child is there waiting for them," she said. "They help the kids, and the kids help them."
Foster grandparents must be 60 or older, be willing to serve five hours, four days per week, pass a health assessment, fingerprint check and meet income guidelines. Maximum income is $11,640 annually for one person or $15,615 for a couple.
Foster grandparents are paid a $2.65 per hour stipend by the state-funded program, plus a $4 per day lunch allowance and mileage reimbursement.
The past year about two dozen volunteers served at Harding, Cleveland, North, Williamson, Sheridan and MLK elementary schools in Youngstown in grades kindergarten through fifth.
Helping children with reading and math, listening to their sometimes difficult home lives and doling out hugs and cookies helps her as much or more than the kids, Coonce said.
"You never feel so tall as reaching for a small child's hand," she said. "They're going to give more than you're giving them, I believe."
Bernice Dukes of Youngstown says the children keep her young.
She was involved with a similar state tutoring program and joined Mahoning County Foster Grandparents to work with children at Easter Seals.
Dukes reads to kids, helps them learn their colors and ABCs, and sings them to sleep at nap time. Just a smile from a handicapped child is overwhelming, she said.
"I'm there for them. I show them plenty of love. I just love it," Dukes said. "They're my heart."
Foster grandparents motivated and accelerated the reading and math progress of kids in a day camp this summer, said Paris Yanno, day-care director at Super Kids Child Care Center, which is a part of Heart Reach Ministries.
"We wouldn't have been able to see the progress the kids made without them," she said.
XCall the Mahoning County Foster Grandparent program at (330) 480-0342 for more information.