Foster grandparents program connects edifiers with mentees

By Blenda Copeland

Amid the shuffle of little feet off school buses every day and the din of young voices, before the day’s scholastic and social struggles start, there are familiar faces waiting to greet some very special students inside Lee and Russell counties’ schools.

One of those volunteers is a precious senior adult named Mary Dixon. 

Her hair is up in a tidy bun, her clothing respectable, her smile comforting and her eyes twinkling. Her spirit projects an ease of comfort and love. Something about her makes you instantly trust her and want to run up to her. It’s obvious she’s a grandmother: in fact, of nine, with 10 “great-grands”...but in reality, she’s “Grandma” to thousands.

Dixon is one of about 62 retired senior adult volunteers aged 55 and older that participates in the Foster Grandparent Program of Lee & Russell Counties, sponsored by the East Alabama Services for the Elderly Inc. (EASE). It is a national volunteer program. The program pairs volunteer “grandparents” with children who are exceptional, are at-risk and/or have special needs in the local school systems, Head Start Centers, nonprofit day cares, hospitals and youth centers.

Dixon is exemplary in her service.

She’s an inspirer. A hugger. A lifter-up. An edifier. She excels where society falls short: she supplies wisdom, a true listening ear and a steady stream of encouragement. She instills perseverance and nurtures confidence. And because of her relationship building skills, her mentees are faring better. Her contributions are making a difference and the impacts are long-lasting.

“This one little boy, he’s in kindergarten now, I met him last year when he was in pre-school -- he’s got to get his hug,” Dixon said. “If I’m eating lunch, I’ve gotta get up and give him a hug.”

He’s not the only one. Once one kid gets a hug, they all wants hugs and you’ve got to go down the line, Dixon said, smiling.

Such encounters make Dixon’s day and reinforce the reason she volunteers: she loves children and thought it would be good to be involved in making a difference. “One day they’re going to remember that,” she said of her service. “It just makes you feel good that you accomplished something. You never know. That person may have to give me a glass of water one day. I don’t know.” 

Dixon began volunteering as a foster grandparent in 2009. She volunteers with second graders at Ridgecrest Elementary School in the Phenix City School System.

Her tasks in the school system are many. She helps her mentees -- in her case, a core group of assigned students -- read. She helps them with science and class projects. She’s a burden bearer, too. “If (the students) have problems, they can talk to me, whereas they might not talk to their teachers,” Dixon said. With that trustworthiness comes solidity: “They come back from the weekend and they tell you about everything that they did. It’s just fun. I enjoy being there and they enjoy me.”

While Dixon knows her special focus is the children she has especially been paired with, the “job” comes with bonuses: there are always free hugs, encouraging words and smiles for all the children she sees.

Through her volunteering, Dixon said the top thing she has learned is that today’s children “need more love.” They also need to be told not to give up and not to say they can’t do something: “Don’t ever say that -- keep trying,” she said. For parents, Dixon’s advice is for them to become more involved in their children’s education and to visit their schools more often.

Bridget Woodyard is the director for the Foster Grandparent Program in Lee and Russell counties. She explained that to successfully be a volunteer, there are certain criteria applicants must meet, one of which is mandatory training (at least 20 hours) and a commitment to serve for at least a school year, barring unforeseen circumstances, as well as be able to pass a state and FBI criminal background check. Volunteers serve anywhere from 15 to 40 hours a week.

For more information about volunteering through the Foster Grandparent Program through East Alabama Services for the Elderly Inc., contact Bridget Woodyard, director, at 334-286-6514 or via email,