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Grandparents Foster Love of Reading

From across the isle at Wal-Mart or in the produce department at Red Apple, Dee Robbins and Jean Barnett hear familiar voices calling out, "Hi Grandma."

Although neither woman has children of her own, nearly a decade's worth of elementary school students affectionately know them as the "reading grandmas."

Robbins and Barnett, both former teachers, are part of a federally-funded reading assistance program known as "Foster Grandparents." The program pairs students with seniors who give them individual attention.

We take youngsters who are in the ordinary classroom and who are below grade level in reading,"

Robbins said. "Hopefully by the end of the year they're at grade level." Robbins, 75, has been in the program since its inception by the Ontario School District eight year ago.

"Our district really embraces the program, the kids love it and the teachers love it," Katherine M. Collins, director of public information and community involvement, said.

Both Robbins and Barnett, 76, began at May Roberts Elementary then transferred to Pioneer Elementary three years ago. They primarily work with the third-grade class.

"We came out to Pioneer because they didn't have any foster grandparents," Robbins said. "Nobody wanted to come way out this far."

Being a foster grandparent is a full-time job for the retirees. Each school day the grandmas spend four hours working with eight to 10 students.

The students pick out books in line with their reading level and read aloud to Robbins or Barnett. The students then take a test on the book and write a sentence on what the book was about. Not only do the children receive extra help with reading, but also vocabulary, spelling and punctuation, Robbins and Barnett said.

Neither Robbins nor Barnett has had to struggle to get any of their students to cooperate.

"There haven't been many hard moments, some days you're just more tired than others," Robbins said.

"Sometimes they don't want to read, they just want to talk, so we just go with the flow," Barnett said.

It is that individual attention that makes foster grandparents such a commodity. Robbins and Barnett work closely with the teachers and children who do not have trouble reading may still spend weekly time with the grandmas in order to get that little bit of extra attention.

"We take them and they get to talk to us and we can help them trough some of their troubles," Robbins said.

Although the students paired with the foster grandparents are below their reading level, they do not feel any stigma attached to the extra help, Robbins and Barnett said.

"I think they'd stay down here all morning if we let them," Barnett said.

In fact, if a child is absent another student will get a turn to read with Grandma Dee or Grandma Jean.

"By the end of the year we've had almost every third-grader," Robbins said.

For their time, the foster grandparents receive a stipend of $2.55 per hour, travel expenses and most importantly, drawings, valentines, birthday cards and hugs - lots of hugs.

"Nobody would be in this program for the money,"  Robbins said. "No one could really last in this program who didn't like children and who didn't like to work with children."

Robbins and Barnett both plan to continue as long as they have the health.

"We hope we can at least stay until we're 80," Robbins said.

"Oh yes, at least," Barnett said. "Then we really will be grandmas."