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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Foster grandparents guide Spokane youth

By Sara Parker – AmeriCorps volunteer

As student-teacher ratios have become more lopsided because of budget constraints, the importance of volunteers in the classroom has increased.

The Senior Corps Foster Grandparent Program helps ease the strain on instructors throughout the Spokane area by providing vetted extra sets of eyes and hands in the classroom.

Bob Frohme, Foster grandparent program
Bob Frohne mentors skills in construction at NEWTECH Skill Center

Foster grandparents serve in nonprofit settings that help youth.

“Sometimes they just listen to the children, especially if they don’t have a parent or grandparent figure at home,” said Michael Kenny, program manager of the Catholic Charities of Spokane Foster Grandparent Program.

Although Catholic Charities, which manages the Spokane chapter, is founded on Catholic moral beliefs, the Senior Corps is funded by the federal government, which mandates that none of the participants endorse any particular religious faith in their capacity as volunteers.

The program works with “at-risk” youth from six months to 18 years of age in a variety of settings, from the children’s visiting room at the Spokane County Jail to high school classrooms.

Although a foster grandparent rarely works on a one-on-one basis with a particular child, the emphasis of the program is working with children who are falling behind academically and may not be meeting the requirements to proceed to the next grade level for any number of reasons.

Founded 77 years ago, the program has six chapters in Washington, two east of the Cascade Mountains in Yakima and Spokane counties.  Spokane County has 70 foster grandparents, the highest number in Washington.

The program, which is open to retired people over the age of 55, provides an hourly stipend to low-income individuals who qualify.

After the initial screening, the foster grandparents work under the supervision of the instructor or site manager, who issues semi-annual reports on their performance, once individually and once as a group. The foster grandparents are required to undergo monthly training sessions with the program throughout the duration of their participation.

Foster grandparents are required to volunteer a minimum of 15 to 20 hours per week, but many average 35 to 40 hours per week.

Bob Frohne has been a foster grandparent volunteer for six years, and has been involved in the NEWTECH Skills Center of Spokane for eight years.

Bob, who raised two children and worked in construction before retiring at the age of 52, uses his experience as a parent and in the building trades to guide the NEWTECH Skills Center students in the construction technology program.

He sees a number of issues at play in the student population with which he volunteers. 

One is that the ubiquity of technology draws the attention of students away from a classroom setting in which safety is paramount.

“I have to keep telling them to take out their earbuds.  Then two minutes later, it’s the same thing,” said Bob. “When you’re welding, you need your eyes and your ears.  When they put those earbuds in to listen to their iPods or whatever while they’re working, they’ve just lost their ears.”

Bob also assists the students with gaps in basic math and reading comprehension.

“Those gaps can be significant stumbling blocks in a fast-paced course, in which the instructor may not have time to stop the lesson and assist an individual student,” he said.

“These days, students have trouble with basics,” he said. “Some can’t even read a tape measure. Many can’t pass a basic math test.  So when they come here, we have to play catch-up. Some are falling through the cracks.”

Bob finds that the most rewarding aspect of volunteering at the high school level is assisting students who are falling behind.

Chuck Sauer, the construction technology instructor and Bob’s supervisor, commented on his role in the classroom.

“The beauty is that with an older person, the students learn from them, and the foster grandparent learns from the students.”

Twenty-seven of the Spokane area foster grandparent volunteers work with pre-school aged children in Head Start Programs.

Shirley Price, 88, has been a foster grandparent for eight years, and volunteers at the Toddler Room and the Bigfoot Head Start Program at Spokane Community College.

“When I get up in the morning, I wonder why I do this.  Then I go to school and I know why,” she said. “I love all the little ones. Whenever I hear, ‘Grandma Shirley! Grandma Shirley!’ it makes it all worth it. It’s what keeps me young.”

The foster grandparent volunteers range in age and physical ability level.

“Many volunteers need to use canes and walkers, but being around children and interacting with them gives us a chance for an outing and some excitement in the day,” said Shirley.

“If we didn’t leave the house and talk to folks, we’d probably just wither away,” she added.

For information, call 459-6176 or email

Copyright © May 2013 - The Fig Tree