Left to Right: Program Specialist Sarah Bartkowiak, 25 Year Foster Grandparent Bessie Robinson, and Foster Grandparent Program Coordinator Erin Pustulka
Once in a while, a program comes along that is truly a win-win-win. Catholic Charities of Buffalo Foster Grandparent Program is just that. The program began in 1965 when a group of social scientists, driven by Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” attempted to find creative ways for adults to earn extra income while benefitting the community. Well, it worked! The program has local seniors who meet specific criteria go into local schools and assist teachers educate students on all topics (often on a one on one basis). Today, WNY’s division of the program is run through Catholic Charities of Buffalo, and thanks to its Foster Grandparents and highly motivated staff, the program is a raging success.
Erin Pustulka, coordinator of the Foster Grandparent Program, could not be prouder of what the program has become. “What’s amazing is that people assumed that the senior citizens acting as Foster Grandparents would be run over by the students, but the opposite happened!” exudes Pustulka.
The “Grandparents” work with students who have special or exceptional needs. Common sense tells us that this is likely a challenging role, but history has proven that these two student populations benefit immensely from what the Foster Grandparents have to offer.
The students benefit from the one on one attention the Foster Grandparents provide. According to Pustulka, “Some students react differently when you take them away from their normal groups and have them bond with an adult. The students are much calmer and eager to learn when this new person shows them so much attention.” Additionally, the teachers are thrilled to have an extra person able to help provide instruction.
Last year, more than 100 Foster Grandparents donated over 90,000 hours of service to Buffalo’s students. To celebrate incredible accomplishments like this, Catholic Charities of Buffalo hosts a yearly recognition event where individuals are acknowledged for their dedication to the program. Awards for Years of Service are given out for those Grandparents who have served one, three, five, seven, ten, fifteen, twenty, and twenty-five years of service.
Buffalo’s Bessie Robinson celebrated her twenty-fifth year as a Foster Grandparent at the ceremony. The Henry Osinski Community Service Award is specifically granted to a community member who has shown dedication to the program. At the end of the program, the much-coveted Foster Grandparent of the Year award is given out. According to Pustulka, “This year, the students and teachers both wrote us letters heavily endorsing one certain Grandparent. The students drew pictures of what this Grandparent meant to them, wrote us convincing essays, and one student even jokingly threatened us about what would happen if his or her grandparent did not win the award!”
The panel listened to the students’, and the award went to Buffalo’s Jacqueline Daniels. Ms. Daniels volunteers at Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, and she could not be prouder. “This is my fourth year in the program, and I absolutely love it,” she says. When someone asks her if she is getting tired or wants to cut back her hours, Ms. Daniels replies, “No way. I enjoy this too much. I love talking with the kids and helping mold them while they are still young and can go off to do great things.” A retired debt collector who has lived in Buffalo the last thirty years but is originally from Chicago, Ms. Daniels loves having such a beneficial reason to get out of the house and stay active. Plus, she often encourages other seniors she knows to take part in the program and help mold the futures of children.
Currently Catholic Charities of Buffalo has Foster Grandparent Programs running in seventeen Buffalo Public Schools. Additionally, the program runs locally in three charter schools, parochial schools, and even Head-Start programs. To be eligible for the program, one must be over the age of 55; considered low income by national guidelines; able to volunteer between fifteen and forty hours per week on a consistent basis; and be an Erie County resident.
Not all people will be eligible for this federally funded program. However, the Catholic Charities of Buffalo Foster Grandparent Program is very grateful for any donation. To help keep the program afloat, one can donate money on the Catholic Charities of Buffalo website and state that he or she would like the donation to go directly to the program.
Between Erin Pustulka’s contagious enthusiasm for this program and Ms. Daniels’ tale of spending the day helping a kindergartener to recognize numbers and letters, thinking about this program and its accomplishments warms the heart and gives us hope for the future.
Anthony Chabala is a local attorney and educator.