SPRINGFIELD, Ill. >> At a table outside Alyson Williams’ classroom at Enos Elementary School, first grader Kamya Small settles in with a pair of books.
“Are you going to read for me?” asks Elizabeth McDaniel, in a soft-spoken voice.
Kamya opens up a weathered counting book held together by binding tape called “Feast for 10,” about an African-American family preparing and cooking dinner, and begins to describe the characters in detail, even assigning ages to them.
“Two pumpkins for…,” Kamya begins reading.
She sounds out the next word.
“What’s she gonna make with the pumpkins?” McDaniel asks.
“Pie,” Kamya answers.
“OK,” McDaniel concurs.
After finishing, Mekhi Cook, another first grader, pops out of the classroom.
“C’mon son. Do you want to read for me?” McDaniel says, noting his hesitancy.
“Mekhi,” he says shyly, spelling it when McDaniel asks him to, as she prints his name neatly in a notebook she keeps.
McDaniel is in her element being around children. She was the 11th in a line of 13 children, growing up in Harvey, a south suburb of Chicago.
Although she only had only one child of her own, she helped raise more than 60 foster children.
Now at 98 years old, she’s a Foster Grandparent to a whole classroom of children.
“I just enjoy being around them,” said McDaniel during a break. “It’s just something I like to do.”
She paused slightly.
“I’m not ready to retire. I thought I was,” she says.
McDaniel worked as a visiting nurse into her 90s. She still serves as an election judge and is a member of the praise dance team at her church.
The Foster Grandparent program is a federal program through the Corporation for National and Community Service and Senior Corps. The program pairs seniors age 55 and older who meet certain financial guidelines with children with exceptional needs.
Some 42 volunteers work 20 to 40 hours per week and receive a stipend, says the local program’s director, Susan Roher.
“It gets them out of the house every day,” Roher notes. “And they’re going into a place where they’re helping someone.”
It’s more than just helping children with reading and math, say other Foster Grandparents.
“Children open up to me and they let me know what’s going on, how they feel about certain things,” says Beverly Bazemore, 71, who works with fifth graders at Enos School. “They let me know what’s going on in their homes.
“Listening is a big part of being a Foster Grandparent.”
“What’s fulfilling for me,” says Vira Williams, who works with second graders, also at Enos School, “is the opportunity to help (these children) grow, teaching them something, sharing our experiences with them.
“They go to a different grade, but they don’t forget you. Wherever they see you, they speak to you, and they introduce you to their parents, and that makes you feel good.”
“I witnessed a student in fifth grade,” says Enos School Principal Claudia Johnson, “who had written their (Foster Grandparent) a letter and talked about how they love having those conversations with them.
“It doesn’t have to pertain to school. They don’t have a problem coming in and talking to the grandparent about (things) and getting the grandparent’s advice, sharing their feelings with them.”
McDaniel first became a Foster Grandparent 11 years ago at Feitshans Elementary School when Johnson was principal there.
“I thought it was a great opportunity when I had her in the building working with students (then),” Johnson says. “She continues to go and work and move and do things and she has personality and you want to see that. You want to see people working even after they don’t have to work.”
McDaniel usually works with fourth graders at another school, but was moved to Enos because students at her usual school were on vacation.
“I came into this room,” recalls McDaniel, lighting up, “and the little children just started hugging me and it made me feel so good because I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to work (with young children). They’d never met me. Yesterday was first time they’d seen me.
“I just find it a joy to work with them.”
“It makes me very happy (that she was greeted that way) because I strive to promote a family environment here,” Johnson says. “I want every adult in the building respected as a teacher and a family member.
“I want all of the students to look at one another as brothers and sisters, so whenever anyone walks through our doors, I want them to feel greeted, loved and feel like they belong here.”