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Local group hoping to find more 'foster grandparents' for Evansville students

Donna Stinnett
Special to the Courier & Press

Toward the end of May, the mother of a Washington Middle School student gushed to Brandy Knelson about how different her sonֱs school year ended up compared to the last one.

Back in the fall when classes started, the seventh-grader was unfocused, unable to get passing grades and had difficulty coping when things didnֱt go his way.ֱ

But now all that has flipped, thanks to ֱGrandpa Garyֱsֱ constant presence with him through the Community Action Program Evansville (CAPE) Foster Grandparents program.ֱ

Knelson is the director of the program that places those 55 and older in classrooms to support teachers and students during their school day. Theyֱre primarily in preschool and elementary classrooms but occasionally in higher grades for special situations.ֱ

She said the mother told her that ֱGrandpa Garyֱ ֱ retired educator Gary Merillat ֱ successfully brought the middle-schooler ֱout of his shell with his grades, making friends, learning how to slow down and listen and building his confidence.ֱֱ

The Community Action Program of Evansville (CAPE) offers a "foster grandparent" program.

Soon the student was making mostly ֱAֱsֱ (just one pesky ֱB.ֱ) And no more trips to the office.

ֱֱGrandpa Garyֱ has forever changed that childֱs life and thatֱs what matters,ֱ Knelson said.ֱ

As director of the Foster Grandparent program, she recruits seniors who are at least 55 years old and meet income eligibility criteria.ֱ

ֱOnce they are recruited, we provide them with orientation and training to work in classrooms,ֱ she explained. ֱWe have contracts with all the Headstart (programs) in Gibson, Vanderburgh and Posey counties as well as with Patchwork Central and Methodist Temple.ֱֱ

Knelson said that once a Foster Grandparent is placed at a site, the teacher chooses four children in the classroom who have exceptional needs.ֱ

ֱThese needs range from the children just needing extra care, love and attention to helping the students with their academics,ֱ she said.ֱ

The director said that after losing some program participants during the pandemic, theyֱre in need of some additional Foster Grandparents. Right now there are 18 Foster Grandparents and the program is set up for 25.ֱ

Participants can volunteer anywhere from 15 to 40 hours a week and receive a $4-per-hour non-taxable stipend, which means it cannot be claimed as income in housing assistance, energy assistance or any other kind of program they might be enrolled in. They also receive gas mileage reimbursement, paid time off, paid holidays (including winter, spring and fall breaks) and bi-weekly training.ֱ

ֱThe program not only benefits the children but also the grandparents,ֱ Knelson said. ֱIt gives them purpose (and) gets them back into the community, and they can make life-long friends with other seniors in the program. And for seniors who are just making it, a little extra pocket money can be beneficial.ֱֱ

One of the reasons she says she immediately fell in love with the job she has had for a little more than a year is that it offers kids who sometimes fall through the cracks an opportunity for loving care and undivided attention.ֱ

ֱMy favorite days are going to the classrooms and seeing how they interact. (Foster Grandparents) bring sanity to the classroom, help for teachers and warm, open love,ֱ Knelson said. ֱI canֱt say enough good things about the program.ֱ

Gary Merillat, right, is part of CAPE's "foster grandparent" program.

She said it can also be a perfect solution for seniors who donֱt have any family around them and can be experiencing loneliness and isolation. Or those who still want to be active in community life.ֱ

The latter was exactly the case for Merillat, who said it didnֱt take long after retiring from teaching for him to get a little bored.ֱ

So in 2010 he joined the Foster Grandparent program and has been with it ever since.ֱ

It can result in lasting connections, he said, noting that he recently had supper with an 18-year-old whom he had mentored as a second-grader.ֱ

His current assignment, he said, is the young man whose school year turned completely around after some one-on-one attention and building a relationship of trust.

ֱI love working with kids,ֱ the retiree said. ֱThis has been very worthwhile.ֱֱ

If you're interested in becoming a foster grandparent through CAPE, contact Brandy Knelson at 812-492-3973 orֱBknelson@capeevansville.org.