‘They just love you’

Slade Elementary foster grandparent Karyl Hill plays a color match game with a group of preschool students in Janet Wrhel’s classroom Thursday morning. JEREMY MARTIN/Boomerang photographer

As the morning session at Slade Elementary School’s preschool classroom came to a close one day last week, students rushed around gathering backpacks and jackets before heading out the door to greet waiting parents.

Karyl Hill, a volunteer foster grandparent in the preschool room, helped calm the confusion that comes when 4-year-olds are charged with sorting their belongings.

“Did you remember your backpack?” she asked a student walking quickly toward the exit.

She reunited another student with his missing jacket, then re-routed a girl heading for the door who was to wait inside for her mother.

Hill is in her 10th year as a volunteer at Slade through Foster Grandparents of the Wyoming Rockies, which placed 10 volunteers in sites around Laramie. The organization also oversees volunteers elsewhere in the state.

The program recently found new sponsorship through local nonprofit Action Resources International, which also supports Feeding Laramie Valley.

Hill found out about the program after moving to Laramie to live with her daughter.

The retired schoolteacher taught elementary students for 10 years in Douglas and knew spending time with young children would be a good fit.

Her goals are to encourage children, help them learn while having fun and provide unconditional love.

“It’s just so rewarding to see them succeed in their learning process,” she said.

She’s worked with various grades during her time at Slade and also spent time in the art room. She joined the preschool room a couple years ago, where she works with teacher Janet Wrhel.

“I love it,” Wrhel said. “A lot of those kids that we have, their grandparents aren’t around, so it’s nice for them to get to have someone that’s like a grandmother figure in the classroom.”

Wrhel said Hill’s education background comes in handy when students are divided into groups to work on academic skills. She hands a group off to Hill for personalized instruction.

“She’s really positive,” she said.

Hill also does chores that keep a busy classroom humming, such as preparing snacks, wiping down tables and helping students with puzzles and games during free time.

“It’s fun to play with them,” she said. “You really do see growth.”

In 2014, Hill worked extensively with a student from Guatemala who didn’t speak English. They worked on vocabulary words as his grasp of English grew. These days, the student refuses to speak Spanish in the classroom because he doesn’t need to.

“Now he talks all the time,” Wrhel said.

The love shared between a grandparent and grandchild is reciprocal, and Hill said she loves the 18 grandchildren she spends the morning with.

“They just love you, and we love them back,” she said.

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Foster Grandparent program finds new home

Foster Grandparents of the Wyoming Rockies recently found a new home with Action Resources International, a local nonprofit organization that also runs Feeding Laramie Valley.

The foster grandparent program was with the Cathedral Home for Children until recently and needed a new sponsoring organization when Action Resources applied.

“It’s great,” Director Maryalice Snider said “It’s really a relief. Lots if not all of these volunteers depend on their stipend, and it was a sense of loss knowing that maybe we wouldn’t be able to continue the program.”

Nationally, the foster grandparent program is part of the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Senior Corps. Volunteers 55 and older who meet income eligibility requirements work with children at schools and education centers in exchange for a stipend.

Snider said the volunteers meet a critical community need as they help students with academic and social skills.

“They end up being grandparents and mentors to a lot of kids,” she said.

As well, she said, the volunteer experience brightens the lives of the seniors.

“It really gives them a sense of purpose and enrichment,” she said.

The organization currently has 10 volunteers at seven sites in Laramie while also overseeing volunteers at locations around the state.

Snider said most of the current volunteers planned to continue their work with or without the backing of the official program when it seemed as if its existence was in jeopardy.

“They just love it so much,” she said.

Gayle Woodsum, president of Action Resources International, has a personal connection to the program and was concerned when she heard it was without a sponsor.

“When I was a young, single mother of a child who was terminally ill and profoundly disabled, he had a foster grandparent in his life who was incredibly important to him, and he was incredibly important to her,” she said. “I saw firsthand how powerful those kinds of relationships can be not only in a child’s life, but also in a family’s life.”

Woodsum said the program also fits the mission of Action Resources International, which was founded in 1990 with the goal of strengthening the community.

Feeding Laramie Valley and Foster Grandparents of the Wyoming Rockies work with people affected by poverty and food insecurity, and Feeding Laramie Valley shares food with some of the foster grandparents.

“There were just so many connections that pointed to (the fact that) this would be a really good home for this program,” Woodsum said.

Both organizations operate in the Fort Sanders Building in LaBonte Park.

Woodsum said she was thrilled to be associated with volunteers who are still giving to their communities after their working lives are over.

“It’s an honor for us to be able to do this,” she said.

Anyone interested in volunteering through Foster Grandparents of the Wyoming Rockies can contact Maryalice Snider at (307) 223-1051.

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