Foster Grandparent volunteers typically dedicate several hours each month, visiting classrooms around Fresno and Madera Counties to provide mentoring and emotional support to children. Volunteer Specialist Raquel Padia says, “I observed seniors serving young people, a very generous commitment of their time and energy, and I asked myself, ‘Who is taking care of our seniors?'” It was then that Raquel asked for permission from her supervisor to form a peer-to-peer support group for the volunteers.
Margarita Cortez has been a volunteer with the Foster Grandparent Program for more than 15 years. She works with children at two Fresno EOC Head Start 0 to 5 locations in Reedley. Right now, hours are reduced, but volunteers are still able to engage with the children via Zoom. The seniors also use Zoom to participate in the peer-to-peer support group, which has become a well-received part of the program. Margarita is one of the volunteers who participates in the support group and says it’s something she looks forward to. “It does help you quite a bit because as with me, I’ve never been able to share anything about myself like this before. And there’s plenty there to talk about. It is especially helpful for those who live alone. You know, what do you do when you’re by yourself?”
Raquel, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work, launched the senior support group in September 2021, aiming to help senior volunteers through any of their struggles. Raquel says, “A group of us get together every other week on Wednesdays via Zoom, and I provide information about mental health, we discuss coping skills, and then there is the support between the grandparents themselves.”
While the coronavirus created struggles and changed the way we go about our lives, Margarita says it’s not the only thing on the minds of these seniors. “Yes, the pandemic created a lot of problems for everybody, but a lot of times, it’s about family and other things. Things you don’t necessarily want to go to your neighbor to talk about. So, there’s a group of people here who have been through a lot. They’re listening to your problems and they can relate to a lot of things that are brought up. And being able to talk about it is a big relief. Big relief. I’m glad they’re there and that Raquel came to us with this.”
Raquel set strict guidelines for confidentiality, providing a safe space for the volunteers to talk about their thoughts, concerns, and experiences. She says the grandparents share a lot of personal stories and a lot of laughs, but Raquel also noticed the conversations were sometimes very intense. “These meetings turned into something a little bit deeper. I’m literally listening to stories about their past, how it’s affected them as adults, and how they haven’t talked to anyone about it, before now. So, I think the biggest thing that I can do for them is just continue to encourage them to take control of their stories and their lives because the stories that some people have shared in the group come from generational trauma. It has come from a structured routine in their life. And now, they’re able to recognize that.”
The sessions are planned for one hour, but Raquel says sometimes they go on a little longer, depending on the topic. “I think there was one day it lasted two and a half hours. Over the past few months, it’s gotten more personal. You know, I don’t think we’ve gone through one session where one person isn’t crying.”
A lot of the focus now is building coping skills and courage, but Raquel also provides opportunities for self-care which include assignments for support group members to work on when they don’t have sessions. “I give them videos to watch, or I tell them ‘I want you to do something for yourself and only for yourself and enjoy that time.’ Or I ask them to write a letter to themselves, and then we’ll come back and reflect on what they wrote about, what they did, or what they thought about the video. I want them to create a habit in their life in which they are taking care of themselves. Not just once a week. I want it to flow through their week and their life.
Margarita says she feels comfortable in the group, supported by her peers, and motivated by the process. “It really is encouraging to get to open up if you have problems. Everybody has something. If you have a past, you have something going on there sometimes. And it’s a relief to have a group like that for us, especially at our age when we don’t really have opportunities like this unless you make an appointment for a psychiatrist or something like that. But that’s not something I would look forward to. We can talk about anything in this group. And it is it has helped quite a bit. It’s a relief to get things like that off your shoulders—because it’s there.”
The Foster Grandparent Program bridges generations as senior volunteers provide one-to-one mentoring and emotional support to underserved infants, children, and teens throughout Fresno and Madera Counties, promoting literacy and academic success as well as fostering social-emotional and cognitive-behavioral development.
Foster Grandparent Program volunteers—referred to affectionately as Grandma or Grandpa—are matched with a young person that will most benefit from heartfelt attention or from guidance by way of an elder’s precious pearl of life wisdom.
The Foster Grandparent Program also promotes quality of life for seniors. A Foster Grandparent extends love and wisdom and devotes time and attention to mentor and nurture a young person who otherwise might not receive heartfelt sharing and caring. In exchange, the Foster Grandparent is afforded a rewarding opportunity to make a difference in the life of another, which in turn contributes toward an enhanced sense of purpose and self-worth.