Established in 1973, the Foster Grandparents program, carried out by a group of senior volunteers ages 55 and over, is making a difference in the lives of incarcerated young people in northern Wisconsin. For the 300 at-risk young men and women inside the Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills Schools, bolstering their education with help from these volunteers means making a better life when they get out from behind bars.
Spending five to six hours each weekday assisting the youth in classrooms, Foster Grandparents program volunteers provide one-on-one help with reading skills in a sanctioned Title I reading class. The volunteers also assist those falling behind in other academic classes by providing the extra attention they need to stay on task and improve. Some of the young students involved in this program have improved their reading comprehension by up to three grade levels in one year.
Jack Crowley, a volunteer Foster Grandparent with two years of service under his belt, found out about the reading program through a friend and signed up. “I was a theater major in school,” Jack explained, “so reading was everything.” Jack admits that when he first arrived and went inside the fence, he didn’t know what to expect. “I was anxious, but then I saw that these were kids, and they needed me. So I treated them like my own children,” explains Jack, a father of nine.
One of Jack’s proudest moments to date was seeing a young man he had helped go on to earn his high school diploma. Jack played an instrumental role in helping him learn to read, and he knew the young man was well on his way when he breezed through a science textbook in just three weeks.
Clarine Wilcox , a retired nurse and 12-year volunteer with the program, remembers what it was like to go in for the first time. “When I saw that great big fence with the razor wire on top and had to go through three locked doors to get to the classroom, I wondered if I’d ever get out,” she laughs. But amid the serious nature of the facility, Clarine is the person that many at-risk youth seek out for a hug and to share a laugh. “I leave this place every day with a smile,” Clarine declares. “Before we start working with them, many of these kids think they’ll be dead by age 20. I know I’m helping them look toward the future.” Clarine sees her pupils walk taller, and conduct themselves more assuredly, as a result of the educational help she’s providing.
Outside the classroom, Foster Grandparents teach basic home activities like baking and sewing to help these youth develop the skills they will need to adapt to life outside of prison. According to Donna Nash, the volunteer coordinator and program supervisor, pairing older teachers and younger pupils together has proven to be a model for success. A big part of Donna’s role is to match the personality and skills of her volunteers with the needs of the incarcerated youths. “Many of the young people here have never developed strong inter-generational relationships,” she explains. “This program helps at-risk youth see a future for themselves.”
The group of 18 Foster Grandparent volunteers Donna oversees has been working with at-risk youth for 41 years, collectively serving over 960,000 hours. Donna notes how the volunteers benefit from their service, describing their desire to “become engaged in using their knowledge and staying mentally and physically sharper by working.”
Creating hope for at-risk youth by teaching life skills, and sharing lots of hugs and laughs along the way, the senior volunteers and staff from the Foster Grandparent Program at Copper Lake and Lincoln Hills Schools shine brilliantly together as today’s Daily Point of Light.
Who are the volunteers in your community challenging the status quo and making an undeniable impact for those in need? Nominate an outstanding volunteer or group today for the Daily Point of Light Award at http://www.pointsoflight.org/programs/recognition/dpol/nomination