A group of 4th- and 5th-graders were worried one day when a woman they call “Grandma Kitty” did not show up for school.
The next day, their questions poured in: “Are you OK? Are your pets OK? What happened?”
The answer: Kitty Walter had a foster grandparent meeting.
“Kids are great, and they’re just so genuinely happy to see me,” Walter said. “It’s a joy to go to school. It’s really rewarding.”
Walter serves as one of three foster grandparents in Dickinson County. Suesan Harrington, director of the program through the North Central Flint Hills Area Agency on Aging, said the program gives people who are 55 and older the opportunity to assist children with reading and other school activities.
While Walter said it is rewarding to her to come alongside students in need, she said she started out as a person in need herself.
“The reason why I started was to get up and get out and do something – to get dressed and get moving,” Walter said. “But now my reason is because, boy, if I don’t show up one day for some reason or another, they want to know (why).”
New children, friends
Walter said this school year is her third year to volunteer with the program.
“I’ve been in the 4th grade for three years and I haven’t graduated yet,” she joked. “I’m still learning, so it’s pretty amazing. The teachers are awesome and the principal (is, too). They’re all so supportive and just really great to be around. It has to do with the social thing, too – not just the kids, but the grownups, too. They brighten my day.”
Walter said her role with the students is similar to a paraprofessional and somewhat like that of a parent.
“The biggest thing is that it’s like having a child you weren’t expecting,” Walter said. “Let’s say all your kids are grown and all of the sudden you get pregnant and you have this kid. Years down the road, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, how did I live my life without this child?’
“That’s basically what it is like in the program for me,” Walter said. “I wouldn’t have (known that I) missed it, had I never done it. But now that I’ve done, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be a part of my life as long as I can get around.’ I just feel like, there’s a part of me that I didn’t know I could get so much joy out of.”
Lunch, recess with Kitty
Walter said she especially enjoys recess and lunchtime with the children. This enjoyment is not because the 65-year-old likes to play a mean game of kickball or chug cartons of 1 percent milk. Rather, Walter said she likes really knowing what is going on in the children’s lives. In these relaxed environments, Walter said students share things they would never say to her in class.
“You find out so much,” Walter said about lunchtime. “Sometimes, I find out things to report to the teachers, (like) home problems.”
On the playground, Walter said she helps the children problem solve daily life issues.
“They don’t feel threatened by telling me things,” Walter said. “(Sometimes it’s) just simple stuff like, ‘My older sister picks on me,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, she’s got to babysit me tomorrow and she just isn’t very nice to me.’ And I’d just say, ‘Oh, well, you just kind of stay out of her way and do your thing.’”
Beyond school grounds
Walter drives into Abilene every day from Herington. The agency pays Walter mileage, as well as a $2.65 stipend for each hour she volunteers. Since Walter lives more than 30 miles from Garfield, she does not normally see her students in her hometown, but one Sunday afternoon, she got to visit with a student and his family.
“When I was at the bowling alley, and this boy from Abilene, his parents bowled, and they’re on some sort of traveling league, where they go to different cities,” Walter said. “When he saw me there, oh my gosh, he was ecstatic. ‘Oh, Miss Kitty! Oh my gosh. I’ve got to go get my mom and dad. They’ve got to see you.’ He was just so excited to introduce me to his parents, because I guess he’d talked a lot about me. It just really feels good to have that.”
Walter said she does not discipline the students or give any negative feedback. Rather, he role is to give encouragement, answer questions and help the students to follow the teachers’ directions.
“The whole purpose of a foster grandparent is to provide unconditional love and support to these kids, and I think that is the role of a natural grandparent also,” Harrington said. “To me, that is their main goal – is to be there for them and to provide that unconditional love and support.”
Harrington said the program is seeking more volunteers. To apply, seniors can contact her at 800-432-2703 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“It’s a wonderful program,” Harrington said. “I mean, everybody wins. The kids win, the grandparents win and the school wins.”