Popular Foster Grandparent program in jeopardy in Washington

Fen Fang Jiang, 72, reads to kids at Pike Market Childcare in the Pike Place Market. Jiang is part of the "Foster Grandparent" program. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Fen Fang Jiang, 72, reads to kids at Pike Market Childcare in the Pike Place Market. Jiang is part of the “Foster Grandparent” program. (Photo by Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Kids and seniors have a special connection.

It’s often a patient and unhurried enjoyment of each other that eludes those of us wrestling with the grinding pressures of middle life. And I’ve often thought that enlisting seniors might help ease some of our city’s pressing child-care needs.

Turns out I wasn’t the first to think of this elegant solution. The statewide Foster Grandparent Program existed exactly to connect these populations in a loving and mutually beneficial way.

Until it was suspended.

The decades-old federal program connects seniors with organizations that serve children. Small stipends are provided to low-income seniors who participate. Since 2002, the program has been administered in our state by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington through a federal grant.

“Mostly this program is designed for ‘grandparents’ to give extra love and time to children. You’ll see a lot of the time they’ll be sitting at the table as children do art work,” says Ilene Stark, executive director of the Pike Market Child Care and Preschool, where half the kids are low-income.

The stipend, says Stark, helps seniors, often from neighborhoods near the market, with a little extra money.

Pike Market Child Care has hosted Foster Grandparents for decades and currently has five “grandmothers,” including a 90-year-old woman who has volunteered at the school for 20 years.

But last month, Catholic Community Services announced it would end its sponsorship of the program. The organization says the grant no longer provides enough money to administer the program. Funding for this program and other Corporation for National and Community Service programs, such as AmeriCorps, is set by Congress and can only be changed through the political process.

“It’s been 14 years, and in that time, there’s never been an increase in the funding. The cost of doing projects goes up over time,” says Eileen Rasnack of Catholic Community Services. Rasnack says her organization struggled with the decision, but she’s hopeful another agency can take it on.

The Corporation for National and Community Service has opened up applications for a new sponsor of Foster Grandparents in Washington to replace Catholic Community Services. The deadline is July 15.

But until that sponsor is secured, more than 200 seniors are without their positions, and many kid-centered programs around our state are without their beloved “grandparents.”

“We just can’t let this go. We’re not going to cast them out, and we’re not going to not pay them,” says Stark, who has been raising money independently of the grant to pay Pike Market Child Care’s Foster Grandparents, at least for a while.

Not everyone has been able to keep the program running, though.

“We don’t have any who were able to stay on as unpaid volunteers,” says Katy Reed, assistant director for Denise Louie Education Center. The center specializes in working with low-income and immigrant children in the Chinatown International District and Beacon Hill neighborhoods.

Reed says it’s particularly hard to lose their Foster popos (“grandmother” in Chinese) because they have offered language skills and cultural context in classrooms, where as many as seven languages are spoken. The children said goodbye to their popos with a cake Tuesday.

“It was sad to see them have to go, because I know how committed they are to the kids,” Reed said.

That commitment is exemplified in 72-year-old “Grandma” Fen Feng Jiang.

Originally from China, she has volunteered at Pike Market Child Care and Preschool for eight years. She says the stipend, about $300 a month, helps her buy clothes and food. But what she really enjoys is being with the children.

“Monday through Friday, everyday, I help with the children … ,” says Jiang, taking a break from wiping down knee-high tables to chat.

When asked how she feels about the suspension of the program, she waves it off at first, saying she’s sure they’ll find a way to restart it. But when pressed she added, “Every day I come to this school [I’m] very happy.”

And every day she doesn’t come, she continued, she misses it.

Just like the kids miss her.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.