`The Main Thing You Do Is Love'

Federal program matches up seniors who want to help with children who especially need it. FOSTER GRANDPARENTS

AS the mother of 10 grown children, Susan Calloway hardly needed to invent an extended family. Over the years she had watched her own family grow to include 17 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. But after she retired as a cook for a girls' camp in New Jersey 10 years ago, the prospect of inactivity - and of losing touch with children - dismayed her. ``I didn't want to just sit and look out the window and feel sorry for myself,'' Mrs. Calloway recalls.

A friend mentioned the Foster Grandparents program, which pairs low-income people over 60 with special-needs children in such settings as schools, day-care centers, and hospitals. Calloway went for an interview and was accepted. After 40 hours of training, she headed off for her first day of duty at the N.I.C.E. Day Care Center, a two-story blue building in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood.

Today, a decade later, Calloway is still there, faithfully spending every weekday afternoon from 12 to 4 in the company of 18 three-year-olds. ``The main thing you do is love 'em, squeeze 'em, hug 'em, tie their shoes, and wipe their noses,'' she says modestly, her face breaking into a broad smile as a girl in a pink dress examines the colorful plastic jewelry pinned to Calloway's red sweat shirt.

As Calloway marks her 10th year as a foster grandparent, the national program itself is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Begun in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty, the federally subsidized program has grown to include 27,000 foster grandparents who serve 68,500 children at 3,500 sites nationwide.

Here at the N.I.C.E. Day Care Center (the acronym stands for Neighborhood Involvement with Children's Education), Calloway is the center's longest-serving foster grandparent. ``It gives you something to wake up and look forward to,'' she says of her volunteer role. ``You're going somewhere where you know you are needed. And you know what? They do things for me, too. The children need somebody to touch them, and I need somebody to touch me.''

Hugging and teaching

Hugging, of course, is only part of her assignment. Calloway says some of the youngest children in her classes ``didn't even know how to chew food when they first came. They would come with bottles and pacifiers. I kept on working with them. Finally, they would say, `Grandma, I can eat now! I know how to eat!'''

For her efforts, Calloway, like her counterparts across the country, receives a tax-free stipend of $2.20 an hour - $44 a week - plus lunch, transportation, and accident and liability insurance. The stipend will increase to $2.35 an hour in October.

But modest stipends are only part of the attraction. An additional reward, at least for the 118 participants serving in the Boston area, comes in the form of an annual recognition luncheon.

One of those honored earlier this month was Agnes Conti, a cheerful woman in her mid-80s who has been a foster grandparent for 23 years. Every morning at 7:30 Mrs. Conti boards the first of two buses for the 45-minute ride that will take her to the Little Folks Day Care Center in East Boston, where she helps to care for 12 babies and toddlers under the age of three.

``I believe in sharing and caring,'' says Conti, who retired from retail sales to take her first Foster Grandparents assignment. ``The last 23 years have been the happiest years of my life, working with children.''

Barbara Reilly, the center's head teacher, praises Conti's contribution, saying, ``She's fantastic with the kids. She's irreplaceable. The patience she has is unbelievable. She loves the kids, and the kids in return love her.''

Elsewhere in Boston, William Griffin, one of a small but growing number of men in the program, spends time each day at an elementary school helping a first-grade teacher with reading, math, and spelling. Mr. Griffin, now 85, joined three years ago after losing his job as an airport security guard because of his age.

``I like teaching,'' he says. ``I have all the children reciting poetry.''

The Foster Grandparent program received a boost during the early 1980s, when First Lady Nancy Reagan adopted it as her special cause. In addition to garnering welcome publicity, the program benefited financially from Mrs. Reagan's support. ``Foster Grandparents was able essentially to be exempted from any reductions during that period, when there were severe cuts in domestic programs,'' says Malcolm Coles, Massachusetts program director of ACTION, the federal volunteer agency that oversees the program.

But even now, with a national budget of $60 million, ``We have a waiting list of people wanting to be Foster Grandparents, and a waiting list of sites that want a Foster Grandparent,'' says John Drew, deputy executive director of Action for Boston Community Development. ``It's penny foolish for the government not to increase the funding in a major way. We have an aging population and a lot of people wanting to participate who can't.''

In the early years of the program, Mr. Coles explains, the vast majority of grandparents were assigned to institutions, ``because that's where the special-needs kids were.'' Then, as children were deinstitutionalized and returned to their own homes and schools, foster grandparents also shifted sites, moving to Head Start programs and public schools. More recently, the scope broadened further as volunteers started serving in teen-pregnancy programs and substance-abuse prevention programs.

Opinions sometimes differ

Volunteers in Boston now also work with AIDS babies and ``crack babies.'' And in one of only two such efforts in the country - the other is in New York - foster grandparents serve at a local court to help children whose parents are involved in a trial, either as defendants or witnesses.

Although enthusiasm for these programs runs high, challenges do exist. One involves the rapid turnover of staff members in child-care centers, forcing foster grandparents to adapt to changing - and sometimes conflicting - attitudes about how to work with children. Their experience ``is a plus,'' says Ruth Blackman, director of the Boston program. ``But sometimes they have to take their experience and put it somewhere else for a while. There are new rules out there now.''

Administrators also face occasional challenges in accommodating the changing needs of older volunteers. ``This is a program where we never throw anybody out,'' says Suzanne Plum, program specialist for ACTION. ``A foster grandparent who can no longer be very active might be placed in a hospital, holding an AIDS baby, for instance, or rocking a child for two hours.''

But for the most part, activity is a common bond that draws volunteers to the program. ``All their lives they've been active,'' says Ms. Blackman: ``This is not something new for them. They carry their philosophy of caring and sharing into their later years. It's just a matter of finding another area to further give of themselves.''

Camille Bagwell, a staff member in the Boston office, sums up the advantages of that kind of giving. ``People should make every day count doing something,'' she says. ``And there's nothing any better than loving children.''

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