Imagine how your school days might have been different if you'd had one of your grandparents sitting at a desk alongside you.

Think you might have chatted with friends a little less? Maybe pulled out a B+ instead of a C- on that spelling quiz? Possibly even made the Honor Roll?

That's part of the logic behind the Western Montana Area VI Agency On Aging's Foster Grandparent Program, which is part of the National Senior Service Corps and is administrated by the Western Montana Area VI Agency On Aging.

The program is currently seeking a number of volunteers to support students in Ravalli County.

"Basically, the foster grandparent goes in and works one-on-one with the child in the classroom right along with the teacher," explained Cheryl Weatherell, director of the program's regional branch. "They sit with the child and provide them with the emotional support and stability to get through the class."

The program serves a dual purpose, however, not only providing students with support in the classroom but also creating an avenue for limited income seniors to take an active role in addressing their community's needs.

"Most of the kids have been deprived of some mature adult in their life ... There are a lot of single parents out there who are working and their grandparents live far away," Weatherell said. "So, these [volunteers] kind of take the place."

The program targets children that are "at-risk" and have some kind of special need - a definition that, in one way or another, could describe a wide swath of students.

"That pretty much covers the gamut of all kids," Weatherell explained. "They could be kids living in poverty, kids with physical ailments, kids who are developmentally disabled, learning impaired, hearing impaired or just kids that have fallen behind because they didn't have the extra help in the classroom."

While the program can aid students up to the age of 21 and has been active in some high schools and juvenile detention centers around the state, most of the students served are younger, attending Head Start programs, pre-school and elementary school.

Donna Brush, of Darby, recently finished up her first school year as a foster grandparent program volunteer working with students in Ravalli County Head Start. A relative newcomer to the area, Bush just happened to find a brochure for the program at the Darby Community Public Library.

"I thought ‘this is for me,'" explained Bush, who has been satisfied with the program and the opportunity to serve that it has presented.

"It was great ... and I happen to love children," she said. "So, the fact that they're sending you to be an extra set of hands and you don't have the extra responsibility of being the teacher or teacher's assistant ... you get to focus on the kids, which is what grandparents do!"

Bush hopes that others in the area will sign up as volunteers.

"There are people out there that could be a great resource to our school system and the Head Start program," she said. "It really is a great program ... all of our schools need help."

Applicants who wish to volunteer must be 55 or older and currently not employed. There is a small stipend available to volunteers who meet certain income criteria. Volunteers don't need any special training or education, though they are required to serve between 15-40 hours per week and must be able to pass a background check.

According to program literature, the program "enables special needs children and youth to achieve physical, mental, emotional and social development, thereby helping them attain independent living and become future productive citizens.

"Healthy, educated and emotionally balanced citizens are intrinsically responsible for positive economic development in communities. The dollar wage value to the 27 Volunteer Stations in the 6 rural counties and Flathead Reservation that the Foster Grandparent Program serves is $585,020 per fiscal year, based on the 2007 Montana volunteer wage value as posted on the Independent Sector website."

The program, started nationally in 1965, is currently active in all 50 states and has been active in Montana for the last 30 years.

Nationwide, there are nearly 30,000 volunteers contributing more than 25 million hours to over 284,000 young people.

The Area VI Agency on Aging is based out of Polson and administers the Foster Grandparent Program for Flathead, Lake, Lincoln, Mineral, Ravalli and Sanders counties as well as the Flathead Indian Reservation.

For more information on how to get involved, contact Cheryl Weatherell at (800) 266-4188.

Reporter Will Moss can be reached at 363-3300 or


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