FRANKLIN — With words like “umiak” “ptarmigan” and “mukluks” to sound out for the first time, it’s a good thing first grader Ava Giroux had a foster grandparent there to help her.

Giroux, a seven-year-old Franklin Elementary School student, sat reading the book “Mama, Do You Love Me?” side-by-side with 74-year-old Joanne Stetson. Stetson is one of three women over 55 years of age who volunteer in Franklin through the United Way of Chittenden County (UWCC)’s Tri-County Foster Grandparent Program, which is celebrating its thirty-seventh year.

“I’m going to say that’s silent and this is ‘tarmigan,’” Stetson said to Giroux when looking over the word ptarmigan. “And I have no idea what that is but you know what? We can found out.”

Being a grandma

Stetson, who is from Enosburgh, along with 80-year-old Lorraine Longley of Franklin and 68-year-old Doris Santini of Sheldon, helps children in kindergarten through third grade at Franklin Elementary School. All three women assist somewhere between 15 and 30 hours per week in their respective classrooms, mostly working one-on-one with students on activities such as reading, math or other subjects with which a child may need some extra help.

Foster grandparents are serving at seven sites in Franklin County. Mary Pelkey, the Foster Grandparent Program coordinator for Franklin and Grand Isle counties, organizes all the volunteers. In Franklin Elementary School the foster grandparents volunteers, in their own words, love every minute of their time with the students.

“They keep you on your toes,” said Longley. “They’re so interesting because you never know what they’re going to do or say next.”

Longley, who has been a foster grandparent volunteer for four years, said she feels very welcome in the school. When her foster grandparent colleague, Stetson – who has volunteered for five years – walked down the hallway, students of all different ages came up and said “hi” to her the whole way.

“When I’m going down the corridor, I get grabbed from behind,” said Santini, laughing as Franklin Elementary School principal, Joyce Hakey, said she had to explain to students they needed to be gentle with the foster grandparents.

Santini, who goes by “Nana” and has been at Franklin Elementary School for six years, said she often sees past students or current ones outside the school as well. “If I see them in the store, they come running over,” she said.

A lot of the students would like to keep working with their foster grandparents once they go on to higher grades, as it turns out. Santini once ran into one of her students in the dentist’s office who asked whether she could accompany the student in fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades, during high school, and in college too.

“The kids just love the grandparents,” said third grade teacher Ashley Bachelder. “They just love to get to know them.”

“If grandma Joanne’s not here, they’re wondering, ‘Where’s grandma Joanne?’” said first grade teacher Erin Coon.

All the difference

Grandparents spending time in the classroom is enjoyed by students, teachers and grandmas alike, and it is also mutually beneficial for all parties involved.

Foster grandparents allow teachers to work more efficiently, such as when they can help students who had a hard time with the previous day’s homework, while the teacher gets everyone else in the classroom started for the day.

“[It makes] all the difference,” said second grade teacher Carrie Toof. “Allowing them just an extra few minutes work on something with a student.”

Bachelder added, “It’s just that comfort of knowing someone’s there just in case.”

For the students, Bachelder said grandparents have an especially comforting presence that boosts student confidence.

“I just think having somebody there they can count on and trust in and knowing that they’ll be there – kids feel like they can do it,” she said.

Toof added, “It just allows them to feel comfortable in a way that they can share their personal stories.”

Coon said, “All of the students have an opportunity to read with [Stetson] and work with her. A lot of them ask,” she added.

For the foster grandparents, their time at Franklin Elementary School through their program gives them purpose and flexibility.

“It fits in perfectly because I have worked with childcare before and I wanted to sort of retire [but] not completely,” said Stetson.

Santini said, “I gives me some place to go where I can really relax. She added, “I really like the kids a lot and I like talking to them.”

Longley said of her service in the school, “It keeps my life going. It makes my life happy.”

School improvement

Foster grandparents began working at Franklin Elementary School about seven years ago, said Hakey, and the school community as a whole has been improved as a result.

“Having the foster grandparent program, it just adds a whole other dimension to the school,” Hakey said. “Having another generation,” she added, “it enriches the school culture.”

In addition to telling stories about the past and sharing their experiences with the students, foster grandparents fulfill the social and academic needs of children as well, said Hakey. “It’s having that one more person they can count on,” she said.

“A caring, consistent adult,” added Pelkey.

In a list composed of various replies to finishing the sentence “a foster grandparent is important to me because they…”, students gave many reasons why foster grandparents were a good addition to Franklin Elementary School. Among those answers were “made me feel good that they liked to help me,” “bring in cool stuff like a picture of the smallest baby ever” and “taught me to stop and slow down at the commas.”

Looking for grandparents

While about 30 people are active as foster grandparents across the Franklin, Grand Isle and Chittenden counties, Pelkey said UWCC is looking for more.

“There is a need,” said Pelkey. She tries to match up students and foster grandparents in ways that fit the needs of both parties, something that’s more easily done with more volunteers to choose from. “We’re really looking,” said Pelkey.

Something she’d like to see more of, Pelkey said, is foster grandpas. She currently only has one as part of the program.

“There’s a whole lot of young men out there who could really use an adult male model,” Pelkey said. Pelkey added that she encourages married couples to apply to volunteer as well as people with various disabilities.

There are few requirements for being a foster grandparent volunteer outside of being over 55 years of age, and most volunteers receive a modest stipend for their work. One of the most important qualities a participant can have, said Pelkey, is an interest in a mutual learning experience.

“We’re looking for an older volunteer who is willing to share their time, love and skills,” said Pelkey. “Some of my volunteers say, ‘I’m always learning.’ I love that.”

Learning together

Logan Fournier, 7, finished up the last pages of “Dogs Don’t Wear Sneakers,” by Laura Numeroff several weeks ago before he talked about working with “Nana” Santini. Santini helped Fournier determine the difference between “or” and “our” and how to pronounce “gnu,” something neither he nor Santini had heard of before.

“We read a lot of books,” Fournier said. When asked what he and Santini do together he said, “I get a lot of books done.”

Without his foster grandmother, Fournier said he’d have to sit at his desk and read alone, which was not his first choice. He said he’d rather work with his foster grandmother.

“So I can get help with words,” Fournier explained.