BRINGING KNOWLEDGE AND COMFORT TO THE CLASSROOM
“Don’t bring in a rocker — I don’t need those kinds of things,” Pearl Hawkins told Seeley Lake Elementary preschool teacher Sheila Devins on her first day as a foster grandparent. “I’m going to get down in the beanbags with the kids.”
Sixteen years later, “Grandma Pearl,” nearly 78, is the longest-serving foster grandparent in Missoula County, having volunteered more than 17,400 hours in the preschool classroom. Hawkins laughed when she said she missed her calling as a preschool teacher, but said she cherishes the opportunity during this stage of her life.
Hawkins grew up in a children’s home without much support from adults. She got married and was a stay-at-home mother of two children.
Devins approached Hawkins to work as a foster grandparent with her preschoolers after Hawkins resigned her position in the lunchroom. Devins appreciated her even temperament and connection to the students and felt she would be an asset in the classroom.
“I think it is important to have people of different abilities and people of different ages and show that they make contributions to our society,” Devins said.
“I said ‘OK’ because I needed something to do after my husband passed away [in 2001],” Hawkins said, remembering her initial hesitation. “I just couldn’t bear to stay at home all the time and look at four walls.”
The Foster Grandparent program is a volunteer opportunity to help adults age 55 or older stay active and serve children and youth in their community. The program has been offered through the National Senior Corps for more than 50 years and is regulated and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that engages more than five million Americans in service through national initiatives including AmeriCorps and Senior Corps.
While the program has existed in Missoula County for about 50 years, Missoula Aging Services (MAS) has administered the program for 37 years. In addition to the federal funding, MAS covered 37% of the cost of the program in fiscal year 2019- 2020 and will cover 35% percent in 2020-2021 through local funding sources and donations.
Hawkins worked with individual students and led small groups. She read to the students, helped with art projects, played with them and offered assistance as needed. Because Hawkins’ love of hunting, fishing and being outdoors has equipped her with an understanding of the natural world, Devins worked her into a leadership role in place-based science lessons.
“I’m with the kids, playing house and dolls and whatever they want to play. I dance with them and I get down on the floor with them,” Hawkins said. “If that doesn’t keep you young, I don’t know what does.”
After Devins moved to teaching kindergarten five years ago, Hawkins remained in the preschool and continued to share her knowledge and skills with the class.
“I love to ask Grandma Pearl what her experience or opinions are on certain topics. I let her add ideas to projects and give perspective to situations,” current preschool teacher Jama Mauldin said. “She is a bright woman and we would miss out on so many nuggets of truth and wisdom if we discounted her due to age.”
Students gravitate toward Hawkins not just for academic support, but as another trusted adult in the classroom. She has become a source of comfort, especially for students who are struggling. This is one of Hawkins’ favorite roles, and one she feels well suited to excel at because of her own childhood.
“If they needed a hug, or loving, or if one was having a hard time and crying, then I am the one that soothes them,” Hawkins said.
Devins said because Hawkins is so approachable, thoughtful and patient, she has taught students to be “socially bilingual.” Through their positive interactions with her, they begin to understand that while some older people may seem gruff and unapproachable, others are relatable and loving.
For Hawkins, the Foster Grandparent program not only allows her to serve an active, purposeful role in the community, but the financial benefits are also helpful.
Foster Grandparents who meet income guidelines and serve a minimum of 15 hours per week earn a tax-free hourly stipend of $2.65 per hour. While it isn’t much, and foster grandparents are considered volunteers, Hawkins — a single woman living primarily on Social Security benefits — said it is enough to pay her rent. The two free daily meals she receives five days a week at the school also minimize her personal food costs.
The Foster Grandparent program came to a screeching halt after the coronavirus pandemic reached Montana. On Friday, March 13, MAS notified their foster grandparents they were not allowed in the schools until further notice in an effort to protect their health and safety, as well as the children’s.
Colleen Baldwin, MAS volunteer services program manager, said the Corporation for National and Community Service decided to continue the stipend allowance for foster grandparents for 10 weeks following the suspension of the program.
“I’m very pleased that a federal oversight agency would take that step,” Baldwin said, adding that the continuation will help support foster grandparents and keep them engaged with the program. “Missoula Aging Services is doing everything we can to support our Senior Corps volunteers.”
While Hawkins said her family has been supportive through everything, and a member of the community bought her groceries one day, which helped her financially, she misses the kids.
“It is depressing,” said Hawkins, who added that she’s been sleeping a lot. “[Quarantine] has literally driven me up the wall … that is why I like to go to school. The kids help me, but I was so afraid of getting coronavirus.”
While the preschool class meets bi-weekly on Zoom, Hawkins doesn’t have access to the technology to join in, nor does she think she could use it effectively.
Baldwin said MAS is aware of the technology gap for seniors, and is working on various programs for Senior Corps members to connect through technology. They have already started conversations with superintendents about what the program will look like for the fall.
“It’s not going to be normal. That is gone. It is not good for the grandparents or the children,” Baldwin said. “We are diligently searching. We do expect the programs to survive, and Missoula Aging Services will be dedicated to that.”
Hawkins hopes she can rejoin her students in the classroom this fall.
“It gives me something to look forward to. I just love being with the kids and teaching them,” she said. “I feel when they learn something, I had a part in it.”