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Program lets seniors help children

Program lets seniors help children

Posted: Wednesday, September 3, 2008 10:17 pm

By BARBARA BRADLEY The Commercial Appeal MEMPHIS (AP) — Four days a week Fredda Davis, 71, scrubs up, dons a hospital gown and rubber gloves and enters the newborn intensive care unit of the Regional Medical Center at Memphis. There, she rocks babies with the tenderness of a grandmother. She also feeds, burps, diapers and talks to babies whose parents may or may not be frequent visitors. “Babies 2 and 3 days old know a body touch is love,” said Davis. “I don’t know how they do, but they do. We hold them and love them because when they leave here — we don’t know — it may be all the love they’re going to get.” Davis is a Foster Grandparent volunteer, one of about 135 in this area assigned to schools, Head Start programs, hospitals and day care centers. The federally funded program, active in every state, places low-income seniors at least 60 years old with special-needs children. The Foster Grandparent program is managed here by Porter-Leath Children’s Center, which sends the seniors to 33 volunteer stations in Memphis and Shelby County and one station in Fayette County. Babies, often premature, often sick, or both, come to the Med unit as small as a single pound. Davis has rocked babies at The Med for four years. Before that, she worked at a day care center for four years. But tending newborns is easier on her arthritis. Baby Brandon, with a head no bigger than an apple, never makes a peep through all her ministrations, but his dark eyes are in constant motion, as if searching for something. “He ain’t got no right to cry,” she says to him in baby talk. “He got somebody holding him.” Across the room come the relentless wails of a baby not so lucky. His mother was a methadone addict, and he is suffering withdrawal. While Davis works, Ora Medley, another volunteer, cuddles another baby in a rocking chair. She is 80 and drives herself there from North Memphis every weekday. “It’s a big help to us for them to care for the babies and feed them,” said Marianne Mejia, a newly graduated registered nurse. “Usually we have two or three, but some days we don’t have any.” The nurses, typically caring for 60 to 70 babies at once, have little time for simply holding and loving them. Foster Grandparent volunteers here receive a tax-free stipend of $2.65 an hour, plus transportation reimbursement, and average 20 hours a week. In the last fiscal year they gave 122,000 volunteer hours, said Viola Frey, who manages the program at Porter-Leath. There is a waiting list of seniors who want to help, but not enough money to accommodate them, even though the program gets additional help from the H. W. Durham Foundation, Memphis Civitan Club and United Way funds that come through Porter-Leath. “It is an opportunity for our seniors to stay involved and active in the community,” said Frey “and they enjoy it very much.” Twice yearly evaluations of the children’s performances prove the program works, she said. But Pauline Robinson, 74, a volunteer from Cordova, doesn’t need to see numbers. She needs only look at Jamarius Burton, a child who was foundering a year ago. When Jamarius entered the preschool class for 4-year-olds at Southwest Tennessee Community College child care centers last year, he didn’t talk or play and he was still wearing diapers. “He didn’t do anything except sit,” said Robinson. “I felt like he needed me because I cared. So I just took ahold of him.” Robinson, whom the children call “Granny,” used bingo cards marked with numbers and letters to teach the boy his ABCs and to count to 100. If she said “A,” he learned to cover that letter. If she said, “B,” he covered that. When he could cover all the letters on the card they would shout “Bingo!” He liked that. “I am an excited person. All the time since I was born, I was like that with smiles and all that,” she said. “So when I got to be old, I’m giving the kids what I have and that’s excitement.” When Robinson finally let go of Jamarius he had risen two grades. He graduated this spring with the ability to read a little and write a little. And, for the first time, he plays with other kids. “He could show a smile,” said Robinson, “and he was enjoying being what he wasn’t.” In recent months Porter-Leath has faced a new problem. Soaring gas prices have put the brakes on the Porter-Leath bus that once ferried the seniors to their jobs. Porter-Leath has asked some Foster Grandparent volunteers who drive to pick up others. It is also looking at MATA buses, said Frey, “but it’s not an easy fix.” MATA Plus buses will pick up the disabled at their homes, but seniors must prove their need for the service. Riders also can expect long waits for the bus, which has to cover a lot of territory. Melvine Rolfe, 78, who holds babies or sits with older children at Le Bonheur, has patched together rides from family, the regular MATA bus, and another volunteer who drives. But she worries how she will manage to wait for the bus when the weather turns cold. The situation kept Rev. Jacie Morris, 97, who works at a day care center, at home for two months. “I just love children. I came out of a big family and I want to work with them,” he said. Morris, an associate pastor at a local Baptist church, has been with the Foster Grandparent program in Memphis and elsewhere for 22 years. He worked several years at Le Bonheur, visiting kids when parents couldn’t be there. He read to them, played games with them or just talked. Sometimes he gave kids a break from their rooms by taking them on wheelchair tours of the hospital. The last seven years he has worked with toddlers at Southwest’s child care centers. “At the day care it’s little fellas,” he said. “I teach them to share and not to fight. They have little tempers.” More recently Morris, who lives at Linden Camilla Towers, a subsidized housing high-rise for the elderly, has ridden MATA Plus or ridden with another resident at the high-rise, who operates a transportation service. But lately the driver’s vehicle has been sidelined for repairs. Without his Foster Grandparent work, he said he fears he would be “sitting around the house, I guess, lookin’ at the walls.” Davis, who also lives at Linden Camilla Towers, would walk to The Med, but her family worries it isn’t safe. So, recently she rode MATA, grumbling only a little that the bus was delayed three times for driver changes and repairs. She goes because, if she does not, some babies will not be cradled in anyone’s soft lap that day. Many days, before she leaves The Med, Davis walks among the cribs and prays for the children. It’s the last blessing she can bestow. “Once they leave here, there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said. ——— Information from: The Commercial Appeal, http://www.commercialappeal.com Published in The Messenger 9.3.08

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