'I feel like they are my own grandchildren

Foster grandparent Virginia Martinez of Bremerton helps inspire the imagination of Jordan Estaco, 4, with glittered clay. Martinez volunteers for the Head Start program at Tracyton Elementary. - Photo by Tracey Cooper
Foster grandparent Virginia Martinez of Bremerton helps inspire the imagination of Jordan Estaco, 4, with glittered clay. Martinez volunteers for the Head Start program at Tracyton Elementary.
— image credit: Photo by Tracey Cooper

At Tracyton Elementary’s Head Start program some lessons don’t come from state mandated curriculum.

They come from grandma.

With a gentle, yet stern reminder, Virginia Martinez tells her “grandchildren” not to climb too high when they play outside. They might fall and hurt themselves. Pretend clay eating is far more enjoyable than the real thing.

The Bremerton resident has been a member of the Foster Grandparent program since 1999. The program, run by the state for 35 years, was acquired by Catholic Community Services of Western Washington Jan.1.

“I enjoy it very much — working with the kids. I’m so happy with them,” she said as she rolls out clay with a few of the 18 children in the class.

“I feel like they are my own grandchildren.”

Martinez’s only son is in the Navy and stationed in Italy with her three grandchildren.

Martinez, 72, visits Lidie Holst’s classroom from about 7:30 a.m. to noon, 20 hours a week. It’s been that way for the past four years.

The children sometimes pull out Martinez’s chair for her and can sense she moves at a slower pace than they do. They also want to know where “Grandma Virginia” is when she is not with them.

“They respect me like a real grandma,” she said. “I’m glad of that. I feel like my own grandchildren are here.”

The Foster Grandparent Program is part of the National Senior Corps. It pays a stipend, $2.65 an hour for 20 hours a week, to low-income senior volunteers for the one-on-one work with at-risk children and youth with special needs.

Beverley Luckey-Short who oversees the program in Kitsap and Clallam counties said there is no shortage of volunteers, in fact, they have stopped hiring.

In the first year of overseeing the program, CCS is not allowed to start new sites or close existing ones, Luckey-Short said.

About 80 percent of the program’s funding comes from the federal government, but 20 percent is dependent on community partnerships.

“We have meager needs, but as a non-profit we still have needs,” Luckey-Short said.

The site generally pays for the foster grandparents meals and transportation. The seniors also receive a yearly physical exam.

There are Foster Grandparent sites at the Silverdale Community Center pre-school, which is sponsored by Kitsap Community Resources, Poulsbo Elementary and View Ridge Elementary in Bremerton.

Each site has a different mission for the grandparents.

“They blend into the activities of the day,” Luckey-Short said.

Gail Dubin, director of the statewide program, calls the Foster Grandparent program a “natural extension” of the agency’s work with volunteers.

“We have a proven track record in providing responsive service to the aging and disabled throughout the state through Volunteer Chore Services.” Dubin said.

A total of 215 seniors are expected to participate throughout the five regions.

Participants must be age 60 and meet income guidelines. There are also opportunities for people to be foster grandparents without qualifying for the stipend.

During fiscal year 2001 more than 30,000 foster grandparents worked with 275,000 at-risk children and teen-agers nationwide.

About $1.1 million in federal, state and community funds supports projects in five regions of the state — King/Snohomish, Pierce/ Thurston, Kitsap/Clallam, Yakima/Kittitas and Spokane.

While Martinez has benefited from mentoring dozens of grandchildren over the years, she’s not the only one.

“We love her,” Holst said.

“The kids enjoy having her here,” she said.

Martinez brings her Filipino and Hispanic language into the classroom and creates a sense of family, teachers said.

“We would never trade her,” Holst said.

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