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Milestones and Changes for the Foster Grandparent Program

Friday, January 15, 2016

Eileen Bostwick, long-time director of the Foster Grandparent Program of North Coast Opportunities (NCO), retired on Friday, January 15. “It’s so bittersweet,” says Bostwick. “What am I going to do with all my time?” she laughs, saying that she has always worked and will have to find creative ways to fill those eight hours a day.

Bostwick had been the director since 1990. She saw tremendous change to the program throughout the years due to federal funding fluctuations, constant new regulations, and an ever-shifting landscape of volunteers in the classroom.

The Foster Grandparent Program engages adults age 55 and over in intensive volunteerism as tutors and mentors for special needs children. Foster grandparents serve 15-40 hours per week and must meet income eligibility requirements – the majority of volunteers live within 100-125% of the federal poverty rate. The program provides a small tax-free stipend of $2.65 an hour. “Of course the stipend isn’t why they volunteer,” says Bostwick. “They do it out of love and a deep sense of commitment to the students they serve.” In addition to providing critical support to at-risk children, the program also keeps seniors active and provides a meaningful way for them to contribute to the community.

The Foster Grandparent Program had its 50th anniversary in August, and the local program has been operational since 1973 when NCO received funding for 61 volunteers in Lake, Mendocino, and Humboldt Counties. In 1999, the program was expanded to serve Del Norte and Sonoma Counties, at which point the program had 120 volunteers serving 450 children a year.

In 2008 the program lost all state funding and also suffered as a result of the federal budget crisis. Since then, the number of volunteers has been gradually reduced to 76, and new requirements and regulations have become excessively complicated. “It’s good to be able to prove performance measures,” says Bostwick of the reporting requirements, “but the reality is that schools wouldn’t take volunteers for four hours a day if it weren’t a benefit for the children.” She adds, “We are highly skilled and caring volunteers who make such an impact that kids who were at a high risk of being held back are able to promote at the end of the year. That extra attention, support, and encouragement they receive from the grandparents makes all the difference.”

Of course, the volunteers rely on the program leader to take care of all the details so they can focus on what matters most to them – spending time with the children – and Bostwick’s reputation as a competent and compassionate leader has earned her state and national recognition. Throughout the years, Bostwick has served on numerous committees for the Corporation for National and Community Service – of which the Foster Grandparent Program is a part – and has collaborated with lawmakers and even testified before Congress about the importance of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) and the Foster Grandparent Program. In May, she was named Alumna of the Year by the University of Indianapolis’s Center for Aging and Community. And, in a book called Foster Grandparents: Unsung Heroes which was released for the program’s 50th anniversary, Bostwick appears in not one but two photos on the cover.

In her retirement, Bostwick plans to advocate for changes to the program. “I already have relationships with people in Congress, so now I can be an advocate for lasting change that can have real, positive impact on the program,” she says. Bostwick will also continue working with the Area Agency on Aging (AAA), an organization in which she has long played an active role.

A large part of her advocacy will be for the volunteers themselves. According to Bostwick, “It’s really important that we advocate for the seniors. So many restrictions have been placed on the program, and these people give so much. It’s phenomenal what our volunteers have done during the 40+ years that NCO has run the program, and we need to make sure it will operate for another 40 years and beyond.”

The loss of Bostwick will have quite an impact, but NCO has worked diligently to ensure it will continue as a robust and meaningful program across the five counties it serves. To keep up with changing times and create efficiencies, the Foster Grandparent Program has been combined with NCO’s Volunteer Network. Rebecca Enberg has been doing an exemplary job leading the Volunteer Network as program manager for three years, and officially started as the Director of the expanded Volunteer Network in December. Together, Bostwick and Enberg worked to create a seamless transition. Enberg will be hiring a coordinator and administrative assistant to help with the workload, and she is optimistic about the program’s future. “I am looking forward to adding the Foster Grandparent Program to the Volunteer Network umbrella,” says Enberg. “The volunteers have such a caring attitude toward the students in their classroom and an overall commitment to the program. They are terrific and I can’t wait to start working with them!”

In addition to a dedicated leader – which Bostwick was for 25 years and which NCO has found in Enberg –  a big part of keeping the Foster Grandparent Program alive comes from local support, which is required to leverage federal dollars and has dwindled in recent years. This can be in the form of monetary or in-kind donations.

When asked about the future of the program, Bostwick was clear: “As long as there are kids who need special attention in the classroom, there’s a need for foster grandparents.”

If you are interested in donating or becoming a foster grandparent, call (707) 467-3316 or email renberg@ncoinc.org.