See how grandparent volunteers are making a difference in Cedar Rapids classrooms

Foster Grandparents program seeks more volunteers

Coleen Ashlock (right), a volunteer grandparent with the United Ways of Iowa Foster Grandparents program, helps Garfield Elementary School kindergartner Mariana Jones sound out letter sounds at the school in northeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. Ashlock has been volunteering in the program for five years. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Sitting in the Garfield Elementary School library together, Rhianna Hingleton, age 7, and Julia Byerly, 72, are huddled over construction paper and crayons, conjuring a world.

Second-grader Hingleton is an aspiring writer, and Byerly, or “Grandma JJ,” as she is known here, is helping her master the basics.

Hingleton has drawn football players with wings — they’re fairies, she explains, with adventures in sports and magic to conquer. Byerly coaxes her along, asking her about the genre, characters and plot.

“I love writing,” Hingleton said. “I like that she’s helping me out a lot.”

The two have working together all year, part of Byerly’s participation in the Foster Grandparents program.

A national group of volunteers under the auspices of the Senior Corps, the foster grandparents are all aged 55 and up, and they spend at least 15 hours a week working with children in schools, preschools, Head Start programs and other organizations.

Federally funded through the Corporation for National and Community Service, which also oversees AmeriCorps, the program recently relaunched in Linn and Johnson Counties after a hiatus. It had been administered locally by the Community Corrections Improvement Association, which disbanded in 2015. In February, it restarted under the Des Moines-based United Ways of Iowa, which oversees Foster Grandparents programs in Boone, Dallas, Delaware, Dubuque, Jackson, Johnson, Linn, Marshall, Story and Polk Counties.

Julie Lefebure is the program coordinator for Linn and Johnson Counties. She said the program is looking for more volunteers here. Currently, there are 11 active foster grandparents serving in seven Corridor elementary schools, two Head Start programs, a day care and Kids on Course University. Additional schools and Head Start programs are waiting for volunteers, and Lefebure’s goal is to have 20 spots filled by early spring.

Participants whose annual income falls below $24,120 for an individual or $32,480 for couples after deducting medical expenses receive a small stipend of $2.65 per hour.

“It gives the seniors a purpose, to be out in the community and serving and giving. It benefits the children being served. And it helps the site where they’re serving — they’re another helper for the school,” Lefebure said.

It also helps the volunteers, giving them a meaningful activity in retirement, said foster grandparent Coleen Ashlock, 66.

She is at Garfield Elementary 20 hours a week. Before retiring, she worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant and rehabilitation aid in a care center.

“After retirement, there was really not a lot for me to do,” Ashlock said. “I love it. Being with the kids, helping them out, talking with them.”

At Garfield on a recent morning, she worked one-on-one with kindergartner Mariana Jones, 5. They practiced reading, Jones carefully sounding out letters.

“I came in with no experience. It’s not impossible to do; the teachers are really good about showing you want to do,” Ashlock said. “I would encourage anyone to do it who is looking for something to do. It’s very rewarding, coming in and seeing their smiles and seeing their faces light up when they get something.”

Lefebure said the foster grandparents can play a special part in the lives of students.

“Some of the children don’t have a grandparent figure in their life, so these volunteers can fill that role. They see grandparents differently than they do parents,” Lefebure said. “They see them as a friend or someone they can trust.”

For Byerly, volunteering has been a way to get back into the classroom, where she’s always loved to be. She spent much of her career in schools, working as a paraeducator and a substitute. But after an injury kept her home, she began to feel depressed. Then she heard about the program. “I thought, here’s my chance to help kids,” she said.

In their sessions, she and Hingleton don’t just work on writing. They talk, and share stories. That’s an important part of the program as well.

“I remember being a kid, and things adults forget about being a kid,” Bylerly said. “I’ve got stories about my kids and my grandkids.”

Hingleton added, “And about yourself!”

Byerly spends 16 hours a week volunteering at Garfield, as she also tutors at Wright Elementary, though not as a foster grandparent. In addition to working one-on-one with students at Garfield, she helps in second and first grade classrooms.

“It feels like home,” she said. “I can see I can make a difference in their lives. They can feel comfortable with me. I can see so many changes I’ve made in their lives, it really makes me feel ...”

She trailed off, searching for the right word, when Hingleton jumped in: “Proud?” she suggested.

“Yes, proud,” Byerly replied. “That’s a good word.”

Interested in being a Foster Grandparent? Contact Linn and Johnson County program coordinator Julie Lefebure at or (563) 580-0458.

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