Kansas was recently ranked one of the top states in the country for number of people who do volunteer work. All this week, the KMUW News team is looking at some local volunteers who are making a difference here in Wichita.
Low-income older adults in Sedgwick County are helping struggling kids succeed in the classroom. They are volunteers in the Foster Grandparent program run by Catholic Charities.
KMUW’s Deborah Shaar recently met up with one grandma who serves at Curtis Middle School in Wichita.
With a stack of paper packets in hand, teacher Kristi Kirk begins her 8th grade language arts class.
About two dozen students are spread out in several rows of desks. The children see another familiar face at the front of the classroom: A grandmother with bright gray hair and dark-rimmed reading glasses is sitting at a small table.
"I love being at Curtis," Judi Fellers says. "I really, really do. This has been my favorite school."
Fellers is the foster grandparent assigned to this class. The kids just call her “Miss Judi.” She is helping two students with their vocabulary cards and reading workbooks.
This one-on-one tutoring is the heart of the Foster Grandparent program. Active older adults are matched with a school to provide support and guidance to struggling young people.
Fellers joined the program about seven years ago, after she retired from New York Life Insurance Company and moved back to Wichita. She spends about five hours a day, four days a week, helping in Kirk’s class.
Without Fellers, these kids might not get this extra help and attention because they don’t qualify for district-provided services. They don’t have a para-educator assigned to them.
Fellers says she wants to help the kids succeed, in class and in life. She earns a small stipend -- $2.65 an hour -- for her work at Curtis Middle School.
Teacher Kristi Kirk knows Fellers is worth a lot more.
"She’s with me from 2nd hour to 6th hour. That’s how long I teach, and we don’t get a break, and she’s with me the whole time. So she’s a value," Kirk says. "There’s the value to the learning that is occurring, but you can’t put a price on the relationship."
That mentoring connection makes a difference with some students. Kirk says Fellers' reliable presence in the classroom has helped reduce absenteeism and improve test scores.
Kirk often sees hints of Fellers' impact in the students’ writing.
"We have daily reflective journals, and students will mention that one of the highlights of their day is sitting with Miss Judi and, you know, that just brings me to tears because some kids just do not have that positive influence anywhere but here," Kirk says.
There are about 100 foster grandparents serving throughout Sedgwick County. They work in Head Start pre-schools, elementary schools and a few middle schools, with about 70 sites in all.
Program Director Lyndon Drew says there are more schools with needs than they can serve.
"Sometimes, there aren’t enough grandparents to go around," Drew says. "This last year, we had a lot of folks who are retiring or moving away so we lost a lot of people, and now we are building up again."
Volunteers need to be at least 55 years old, and they must meet certain income guidelines to qualify for the stipend. Foster grandparents commit to working a minimum of 15 hours a week, but can work as many as 40 hours.
Drew says once they get into the program, volunteers stay with it because of the kids.
"We’ve had people in the program for as long as 23 or 24 years," he says. "Our 23-year veteran just retired last year. So it’s something that they really enjoy doing and hate to give up."
The federal government provides 90 percent of the funding for the Foster Grandparent program. The rest comes from a local match.
Sedgwick County provided that funding for 35 years before cutting the program out of its budget in 2015. Drew says Catholic Charities and the United Way of the Plains have made up the difference.
"Without Catholic Charities stepping up last year, we would’ve been out of business by now,” Drew says.
At Curtis Middle School, 8th grader Travone James might not know the details of the funding scramble, but he does know his foster grandparent, Miss Judi, is consistently there for him.
"She helps me every time I need help, and when I’m struggling with something, she’s always helping me," James says.
And Fellers helps Karina Villalobos finish her workbook pages as well.
"Every time I come in, I say 'good morning' to her, and sometimes I give her a compliment," Villalobos says. "She says 'good morning,' and then we get straight to work, and I get my work finished and she helps me."
As the students pack up their thick binders and books and head out of the classroom, Fellers knows she’s helping them with more than their daily lessons. The students she sees at the middle school are economically disadvantaged or facing social issues.
"We have a lot of kids who have problems at home, and those are the kids that we just really want to embrace and make sure that they know how much we care for them," Fellers says.
Fellers' investment at Curtis Middle School pays off when she gets to watch children learn and grow throughout the year.
"I would like to stay and do this for as long as I can physically do it," she says. "It’s just something that I enjoy. I started it because I love working with kids."
Fellers has six grandchildren of her own, and, at 73, she keeps adding more grandchildren to her heart each time she begins a new school year as a foster grandparent.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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