Foster grandparents nurture preschoolers

Andres Plaza loves to hear the littlest ones call him Papa.

Mabel Farmer's reward is "to connect with a child and be a supportive part of their life."

And as Barbara Pfeiffer writes in a post on her "Art Aware" blog, there's nothing quite like "seeing a toddler absolutely ecstatic at seeing me."

Plaza, Farmer, and Pfeiffer are among the 82 foster grandparents whom Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center has trained and posted at 21 day-care centers, elementary schools, and other South Jersey facilities.

The Foster Grandparents program of the Corporation for National and Community Service marked its 50th anniversary in 2015. Lourdes has hosted the program locally for more than 25 years.

"It's a win-win," says Elizabeth Schaaf, Lourdes' director of senior services.

Adds Adria Cruz, who oversees the Lourdes program: "The volunteers have an incentive to be active. And for the child who doesn't have grandparents, it's an extra treat."

Foster grandparents can help children learn to read, master table manners, and tie their shoes. They also can mentor older youngsters.

And for day-care operators and other providers of services for children, a foster grandparent is "an extra set of hands and eyes," Cruz says.

To see for myself, I visit the El Centro day care in downtown Camden, where nearly 160 kids from 2 months old to age 6 are dropped off on weekdays.

The facility, built in 2006, is bright and busy. Kids wearing maroon polos bearing the El Centro logo seem to be everywhere, speaking in a mix of English and Spanish and waving their hands.

But the grown-ups are firmly in control.

"The foster grandparents provide assistance we do not have the funding to pay for," says executive director Sonia Plaza.

"They help in the classroom," she adds. "They play; they dance; they feed the children and take them to the bathroom. And if children need additional help, they sit down with them."

Plaza, who has been with El Centro for 33 years, says being a foster grandparent "is like medicine" for volunteers.

She ought to know: Her husband is Andres Plaza, who retired as a NJ Transit bus operator in 2014 and became a foster grandparent this year.

"This is a lot better than staying home and doing nothing," says Andres Plaza, who lives with his wife in Chesilhurst and can be found most days at El Centro.

Foster grandparents commit to a minimum of 20 hours a week; they also must undergo background checks and complete 40 hours of training.

"I do enjoy it," says Andres Plaza, 62. "Two of my own grandkids are in here, and the other kids hug me and play with my hat. They feel the love you have for them."

The program "does more than occupy my time," says Farmer, 81, a grandmother and great-grandmother who lives in Camden and volunteers at Respond Inc. in the city.

At 15 years and counting, she's been a foster grandparent longer than anyone else in the program.

"Some of the children I've worked with have graduated high school and college," Farmer says. "It gives me a sense of accomplishment to see a child grow and do well."

Pfeiffer - an artist and teacher who lives in the city's Waterfront South neighborhood - has been a foster grandparent since 2011. She volunteers at the Early Learning Research Academy at Rutgers-Camden.

"I sort of don't fit the mold because I don't have children or grandchildren," she says. "The experience has increased my sense of compassion for parents, who are so busy. And it has increased my appreciation of how important parenting is."

One little girl was particularly memorable, she says. The child beamed and flailed her arms with joy when her foster grandparent came into the room.

"Never before, in my seven decades, had anyone responded to me with such glee!" Pfeiffer writes on her blog.

It was, she adds, "one of the peak experiences of my life."

For information about the Foster Grandparents program, call 856-757-3738.

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