Catholic Charities, Diocese of Joliet, connects seniors and kids through its foster grandparent program

Janega: ‘It’s just like having grandchildren.’

Scarlett Halm, 3, picks out a book from volunteer Shirley Anderson’s library at the C.W. Avery YMCA summer camp in Plainfield. Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Plainfield.

Carmen Janega, 74 of Joliet, has two sons and hundreds of grandchildren–thanks to a friend who persuaded her to becoming a foster grandparent 10 years ago.

Janega, who has no biological grandchildren, loved the idea of making a meaningful difference in the lives of children and be someone children could count on.

“It’s a gift that gives forward,” Janega said. “The love they share with you is amazing…it’s just like having grandchildren.”

Foster grandparent Shirley M. Anderson, 89, of Romeoville, agreed. Anderson, who still drives, became a foster grandparent 11 years ago when an acquaintance recommended it to her.

“It’s a wonderful program and it really saved my life, I think,” Anderson said. “Because what else would I be doing every day if I didn’t do this? I think it keeps me active and keeps me alive, really. It gives me something to look forward to every week.”

Volunteer Shirley Anderson helps with the Playdough activity at the C.W. Avery YMCA summer camp in Plainfield. Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Plainfield.

If you’re a low-income senior age 55 and up who wants to work with children, consider serving as a foster grandparent.

Like Catholic Charities’ senior companion program, the foster grandparent program is under AmeriCorps Seniors and Catholic Charities is the local sponsor, according to Kelley Kudulis, foster grandparent program coordinator.

AmeriCorps Seniors is a federally funded program, which was designed in 1968 to encourage seniors to engage with their communities through volunteering. Low-income seniors receive a tax-free stipend, mileage, and a meal reimbursement, Kudulis said.

The Catholic Charities, Diocese of Joliet program currently has 28 volunteers, ages 65 to 89; all but four volunteer in Joliet schools. Most are at Joliet Public Schools District 86 and Catholic Charities’ Head Start program, Kudulis said.

Janega and Anderson volunteer at St. Jude Catholic School in Joliet and St. Andrew the Apostle School in Romeoville respectively.

“Some of our volunteers have been with our program over 10 years and been with the same teacher because they connected with that teacher,” Kudulis said. “Of course, every year, it’s different students.”

Volunteer Carmen Janega helps as an assistant with the summer camp at the C.W. Avery YMCA in Plainfield. Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Plainfield.

The foster grandparents work directly with the teacher in the classroom to serve children in kindergarten through sixth grade who “just need some extra help” in reading, with sight words, with math and just give them “special attention,” Kudulis said.

During the school year, Anderson is in a kindergarten classroom from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. She helps the students with their reading lessons and sees first hand how technology is incorporated into their daily lives.

“It’s a different generation growing up and I don’t know too much about all this,” Anderson said. “Because when my kids were growing up, it was just A, B and Cs. Now they’ve got so much.”

Except for one semester at the former St. John the Baptist School in Joliet, Janega has always volunteered at St. Jude. She arrives early to open doors for teachers, makes coffee for them and ensures the students’ desks are clean and sanitized.

Janega has worked with mostly third graders. But she still interacts with former students – and they still come up to her for their hugs, she said. Janega works four eight-hour days during the school year, taking Friday off so she can enjoy “a long weekend,” she said.

Kudulis, who’s watched Janega interact with kids, said Janega is the epitome of “love and kindness” and “positivity” and has a “great attitude,” even when they’re interrupting her.

Volunteer Carmen Janega helps with the summer camp at the C.W. Avery YMCA in Plainfield. Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Plainfield.

Some foster grandparents also help out with the District 86 summer session and summer camp at the C.W. Avery YMCA in Plainfield.

Anderson said she’s at camp three hours per day, five days a week, working a station, where kids might count marbles, sift sand or playing with Play-Doh. Janega spends four hours, four days per week coloring, playing outdoor games and providing overall support.

“I feel like I turn into a child myself,” Janega said. “I get to make believe sometimes that I can walk a little faster and I tease them that I’m going to beat them at race running. It’s a lot of fun.”

Volunteer Carmen Janega plays BINGO with the children at the C.W. Avery YMCA summer camp in Plainfield. Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Plainfield.

Four foster grandparents currently have mentoring relationships with freshman social workers at Lewis University in Romeoville, Kudulis said. The volunteer spends at least two hours per week talking to each student by phone so volunteer and student can get to know each other.

The partnership with Lewis University originated in 2020 when these students couldn’t visit classrooms during COVID, Kudulis said. Foster grandparents in this program are seniors with health issues that make it difficult to serve in schools, Kudulis said.

“So we provided them with the opportunity to stay in our program but also still work in it and mentor students,” Kudulis said.

Emily Shayman an assistant professor in the social work department and faculty advisor for the office of engaged learning at Lewis University, said up until COVID, students in the social work program typically engaged with the community through volunteer work as preparation for their role as social workers.

Now the society has reopened, Shayman continues to offer the foster grandparent program to students as a remote option of community engagement, Shayman said

“Students get out of their comfort zone by partnering with someone who is different from them – there is an age difference for sure – but also coming from different cultural and economic backgrounds from the students,” Shayman said.

Rob Gaeta, 32, of Joliet, who’s in Lewis’ social work program, said he had a choice of mentoring someone younger than he, or someone in the foster grandparent program. Gaeta chose the latter because two of his grandparents died when he was 13 and the other two don’t speak English well “so there is a disconnect in our interaction,” he said.

Gaeta said his partner was as loquacious as he and very open to discussing any topic. Through her, Gaeta said he learned that seniors are “full-blooded, capable humans” with the same hopes and desires as people of other, and “they need and want and are able to deliver still so much to life.”

“And that helped me personally because I’m constantly on the hunt for purpose and meaning in life,” Gaeta said.

For more information on Catholic Charities’ foster grandparent program, call 815-724-1157.

Volunteer Shirley Anderson hands out books to the children at the C.W. Avery YMCA summer camp in Plainfield. Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Plainfield.