Bridging Generations

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Mention the word retirement, and you'll likely invoke a range of reactions. Some think of retirement as a rite of passage, others as a time to relax. The cynical may view it as a point beyond which one can no longer contribute to society.

This is far from the truth! Seniors today are better educated, healthier, and more vivacious than at any time in our nation's history. They are active, energetic, and willing and can meet many program needs through their volunteer efforts. Seniors are a valuable resource with many gifts to offer--among them, experience, patience, skills, time, and wealth--that are unique to them.

The senior population, and its proportion relative to the rest of the population, is increasing rapidly. The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNS) estimates that, in 2000, some 35 million people age 65 or older were living in the United States, accounting for 13% of the total population. The aging baby boom generation is expected to double the senior population over the next 30 years. And because they are living longer than ever before, seniors can anticipate up to 30 years of productive activity after retirement.

Viewing seniors as a vast resource to help address the unmet needs of communities and vulnerable populations, CWLA in 2001 launched a Senior Services Program as part of its Crittenton Child, Youth, and Family Development Division. The result of a partnership between the League and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNS), the Senior Services Program enables CWLA to direct more attention to using the gifts of seniors to create effective approaches for working with children, youth, and their families.

CNS works through three major service initiatives: AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America, and the National Senior Service Corps (Senior Corps).

Senior Corps comprises seniors who are making a difference through three programs: Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions, and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). Through these programs, seniors share their gifts and life experiences to address issues in school systems, public safety, the environment, and other human needs. Together, these programs involve more than a half million seniors at tens of thousands of sites nationwide.

Through the Senior Services Program, CWLA supports Senior Corps programs and other senior volunteer activities. As part of its 2000 Membership Trends and Issue Survey, CWLA asked member agencies if they participated in Senior Corps Programs and how many children were served by these programs. Ten percent of responding agencies were participating in the Foster Grandparent Program (FGP), serving an average 100 children; 2% in the Senior Companion Program, serving an average of 2 children; and 1% in RSVP, also serving an average of 2 children.

Many seniors do not volunteer through formal programs. Some are one-time volunteers; others volunteer for seasonal or special event. When choosing where and how to volunteer, seniors should pick the type of activity that best suits their personal goals as well as the needs of the recipients.

Most importantly, be creative, selective, and have fun--like the volunteers featured here.

Mentors and Role Models

Like many Americans, Eloise Bowers and Joan Gross recognized the need for additional support for juveniles as they develop and mature into adults. These seniors, however, decided to give back to their community and develop positive relationships with juveniles through FGP.

Through FGP, they have been linked with City Lights School, a nonprofit, alternative school in Washington, DC, that provides comprehensive academic assistance, counseling, and family support services to emotionally disturbed, court-involved, and disadvantaged youth. City Lights has earned a national reputation for a unique interactive curriculum that helps students achieve academically and addresses emotional and behavioral needs. The school incorporates seniors from FGP into its staff as invaluable sources of wisdom and guidance.

The "grandmas," now in their second year with the program, have helped more than 50 of the most at-risk youth in the District of Columbia turn their lives around. "It is our job to help youth link with their peers and the community, as well as help their community and their peers link with them," they stress. "For the link to be strong, it must be mutual."

Some youth in the program have children of their own and need child-rearing tips. Others use inappropriate language and need to expand their vocabulary. Many respond with violence and need avenues to vent anger, whereas others dress inappropriately and need fashion tips. "We are committed to helping these youth help themselves," Bowers explains. "We want to help them embrace the world with their numerous gifts and talents, instead of the world embracing them with handcuffs and incarceration."

Bowers and Gross say their goals as foster grandparents are to serve as role models; make appropriate referrals for resources; teach respect with language and dress; share ways to manage anger, conflict, and anxiety; support successful transitions to mainstream schools, job training, and employment; and provide sincere love and understanding.

"These goals aren't always easy to meet when some of the youth are disruptive and behave in inappropriate ways at first," Gross says. "But we look beyond all of that and realize that often they are just mirroring inappropriate behavior or learned behavior--behavior that is a reality of their community."

Smiling, Bowers adds, "We just wear them down with our patience and consistency. We never give up on them, because they are our future."

"Many may have never had a 'senior' grandma, so they welcome the new relationship," Gross points out. "Sure it takes time to build trust, but that's true in all relationships. Trust is something you can't force. You have to earn it. Once the trust is there, the link is that much stronger."

"Once the trust is there," Bowers adds, "we can also share information with them from a seasoned or experienced view. They seek us out for assistance, attention, and encouragement."

Some of the grandmothers' family and friends have voiced concern for their safety. The youth range in age from 12 to 22, and, Bowers says, "Some of them tower over us." Some have even shared with the grandmas that they have participated in criminal activity.

Gross dismisses the concerns about their safety. "We don't even concern ourselves with that. Some people would rather work with younger children because they are afraid of the older children. Violence is everywhere! There's nothing to be afraid of here."

But she's quick to add that every foster grandparent has to decide where he or she feels most comfortable contributing. "Make the choice that is best for you and the youth you want to serve." Even though foster grandparents go through training, she says, "it's not healthy to feel unsafe."

With the support of the school's administration, Bowers and Gross created a Foster Grandparents' Most Improved Award for graduating students. The recipients, one male and one female, must show improvement by ceasing violent behavior and displaying respect for their educators and peers. Award winners have expressed the positive difference the grandmas have made in their lives and have encouraged other youth to listen to the grandmas and model their behavior.

The grandmas encourage parents, caregivers, and anyone else who comes in contact with youth to talk to them and develop a positive relationship. They stress that words chosen in conversation should be loving. "If we want our youth to respect, we must teach them how to respect."

For Love of Children

Laura Montgomery was hit, spit upon, and jailed when she marched for racial equality in the late 1950s and participated in civil rights demonstrations and protests as a student at Clark Atlanta University (formerly Clark College) in Georgia. Montgomery fought for the end of segregation then--she does not want those efforts to be forgotten today.

Montgomery, who now lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, retired in 1995 after 35 years of teaching. "I enjoy every minute of retirement, but I will schedule time to volunteer with children," she says. "Children are multifaceted reflections of their surroundings. When we surround children with the excitement of learning, we often see them voluntarily striving to excel in school. When we show our children compassion, love, patience, and understanding, we often find them exhibiting the same behavior in their lives. When we teach our children history, we often find children who learn from the mistakes of our ancestors and aspire to brighter futures."

"Most children take integration for granted," she adds. "Some have no understanding of how people gave their lives for the fight for equality."

The children read about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement in class before Montgomery's presentation, but she helps bring the history to life by sharing her experiences of being attacked by dogs and sprayed with high-pressure hoses, denied the right to purchase clothing and food from particular stores, and being thrown into jail.

Montgomery admits this volunteer effort can be difficult, because some answers are not easily explained or comprehended. Frustrated, a 12-year-old student exclaims, "I just don't understand why blacks and whites had to drink from different fountains--it's just water."

"I think volunteering is a wonderful opportunity for everyone," Montgomery says. "Especially seniors. We have so many experiences to share that are unique to us. Encouraging and watching children develop their minds has always been a joy for me. The time spent is nothing compared to the reward of knowing that a child's horizons may have been broadened."

She urges seniors who are thinking about volunteering, "Find out what type of volunteering is best for you--group, special event, or through an organization--and determine how you would like to share. Be proactive, and find out where a child can accept your gift. All children like presents."

Montgomery shares that one of her most memorable volunteering experiences occurred when she told a class of second graders that she had marched with Martin Luther King Jr. A little girl became very excited and asked, "Did you know Abraham Lincoln too?"

"Kids say the darnedest things," she says, laughing.

At a Glance
Foster Grandparents

When our foster grandparent walks into the class, the children are in awe. She shows them how to examine beaver oil to see if the weather will change, and she tells them a traditional story about eagles and ravens.
--Principal, Huslia School, Huslia, Alaska

The foster grandparents have a great impact on the students with whom they work. Students are able to get the individualized assistance that enables them to progress in reading, writing and mathematics. The successes that are gained have significantly improved their self-esteem.
--Linda Scott, Principal, Spencer Bibb Elementary School, Pensacola, Florida

Foster Grandparents mentor troubled teenagers and young mothers, care for premature infants and children with physical disabilities, and offer emotional support to children who have been abused or neglected. Their personal attention helps these young people grow, gain confidence, and become full, productive members of society. In the process, Foster Grandparents strengthen communities by providing youth services that community budgets cannot afford and by building bridges across generations.

Foster Grandparents...

* are age 60 and older;
* volunteer an average of 20 hours a week;
* have limited incomes and meet income eligibility guidelines;
* receive modest tax-free stipends, an annual physical, and accident and liability insurance while on duty;
* are reimbursed for transportation and some meals during service;
* receive monthly training; and
* love children.


The services RSVP provides to the elderly of our community have no comparable alternative. They provide security and comfort, and enable residents to maintain a higher quality of life. Without RSVP, many of our residents would just have to do without.
--Shelly Miezwa, City of Boulder Housing Authority, Boulder, Colorado

I do this because I get to know people, stay active, and stay young.
--Eunice Good, RSVP Volunteer

RSVP volunteers use their experience toward solving problems close to home. Through teaching children or adults to read, tutoring or mentoring children, creating recycling programs, or providing support to nonprofit agencies, these senior volunteers make their communities stronger. RSVP volunteers want to stay active in ways that make a difference for those in need.

RSVP volunteers...

* are age 55 or older,
* volunteer a few hours every week,
* have flexibility in where they serve and how frequently they serve,
* receive supplemental insurance while on duty,
* receive on-the-job training from the agency or organization where they serve, and
* enjoy working with others to solve community problems.


Senior Services Program
Child Welfare League of America
440 First Street NW, Third Floor
Washington DC 20001-2085
Senior Corps
Corporation for National and Community Service
1201 New York Avenue NW
Washington DC 20525

Children's Voice Article, July/Aug 2002

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