"They call me Grandma"

Foster Grandparents program partners seniors and students

On Monday morning, Grandma Becky helped kids go down the slide, cheered them on as they made their way across the monkey bars, and assisted with putting on a boot that had fallen off. 

On Monday afternoon, Grandma Karen helped students add up three plus seven, write out the equations they were putting together, and draw a specific numbers of apples on a tree.

Becky Figgins and Karen Hale are Green River's foster grandmas, as they are both part of the Foster Grandparents of the Wyoming Rockies program, which pairs seniors with students in local schools.

The Foster Grandparents program

"We have grandparents that go into the schools and help kids that just might need a little extra help," Angie Fessler explained of the Foster Grandparents program. Fessler works as a project coordinator for the program based out of Laramie. 

Foster grandparents work directly with local schools and teachers in order to help out with students for a few hours a day. 

"It's good for the kids and it's also good for the grandparents to get out of the house and have purpose and give them something to do and socialize a little bit," Fessler said. "It's just a really good program for everybody involved." 

In order to be a foster grandparent, seniors need to be at least 55, have a limited income, be able to pass a background check, and be willing to work a certain amount of hours each week. Those who are involved in the program also participate in monthly training. 

Currently, the program has several foster grandparents working all around the state, including in Uinta County, Carbon County, Albany County, and in Sheridan and Buffalo, as well as having Figgins and Hale in Sweetwater County. 

"They both have been doing it for a while," Fessler explained of Figgins and Hale. "They're really good and their schools really like them and really appreciate that they go in and do that."

Continuing to work with children

Both Figgins and Hale spent many years of their lives working with children, and both expressed how much they missed it after retiring. So when they learned about the Foster Grandparents program, they were excited for the chance to get involved.

Figgins heard about the program first when she saw a flyer at the library about a year and a half ago. Since she'd already been considering volunteering at a school, the program seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Shortly after getting involved, Figgins, who is 73, was getting coffee with her friend Karen Hill, who is 77. The two had originally worked together and gotten to know each other at the Child Developmental Center, and have maintained a friendship since retiring. Figgins explained the program to Hill, who decided she was interested in participating as well. 

"I thought, even though I'm getting up there in years, I'm still able to help out a little bit and be with kids," Hill said.  

Both of them ended up applying, being accepted, and getting partnered with local schools.

Figgins ended up back at the same place where she worked as a teacher for almost two decades, returning to the Child Developmental Center to help out as a foster grandma. 

"I love the early childhood years, just watching the way they build their knowledge of the world around them," she said. "So I feel very fortunate to be able to go back into that environment. And I feel like I was able to right away step into how to be useful in the classroom because I know the environment so well."

Figgins helps students in the classroom with personal self-help skills, like getting coats on and off and washing hands, and she helps and interacts with them during playtime. She also works more closely with a few students who need extra help and support in learning skills like counting, and she finds fun ways to build those skills. 

"It's all in the nature of play, but we're slowly working on those goals," she explained.

For Hill, joining the program gave her the opportunity to keep working with children but in new ways. She ended up being placed in Harrison Elementary School, and was specifically asked to help students with their math skills. She spends about four hours a day, for four days a week, helping in several different kindergarten and first grade classrooms. 

At first Hill wasn't sure about helping with math, and she admits that she isn't able to help much with students in older grades. 

"They learn math totally differently than we did in the 50s," she said, explaining that she's learning from it, too. But she enjoys helping out with the younger students, especially those who need a little extra support. 

"I just basically work with the kids that are having a hard time getting the concepts," Hill explained.

She recalled working with one student who was especially struggling and had almost given up on being able to understand the math concepts he was learning. 

"So I just sat with him one-on-one, and that little guy finished all his papers," Hill remembered. "He lit up like a light bulb. And when you see things like that, any teacher, anybody that's worked with children, can tell you, that's that reward you need. It's just to be there and see their eyes light up when they say, 'Aha, I got it. I could do this.' It's amazing." 

Star photo by Hannah Romero

"Grandma" Becky Figgins helps Kenndrick Brinkerhoff go down the slide.

The rewards of the program

Both Hill and Figgins agree that being a part of the Foster Grandparents program is enjoyable and rewarding, for both the kids and themselves. 

"It's a good thing on both ends," Hill said. "It's a give-give thing."

"It's wonderful and necessary, I think, for me, to have a sense of purpose," Figgins said. "And it makes me so happy to be making those connections with kids."

For both Figgins and Hill, building relationships with students is one of the most rewarding aspects of the program.

After having spent so many years as a teacher, Figgins explained it's especially nice to not have to worry about the more mundane parts of the job and to instead be able to just focus on and interact with the kids.

"It's so important, because all learning takes place in the context of a relationship," she said. "And if students don't have a strong relationship with someone, they are at a disadvantage. And so I'm there to be that person when somebody needs a little bit extra."

Hill feels a similar connection with the students she works with, and is happy to be able to give them the support they need.

"The kids that really are struggling and just need that extra TLC, I love to be there for them," she said. "It just warms my heart."

Thanks to the program, the students have also formed a special bond with the foster grandparents who have been there to help and show them that support.

"They call me Grandma Karen," Hill explained.

"Whenever a child says, 'Grandma Becky, can you come play with me?' Oh my goodness, that's my happiest day," Figgins said.


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