By Elizabeth Richards
On Tuesday, July 14, Opportunity Alliance volunteers for the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companions programs were recognized at a drive-through event held at Windham Primary School.
“Each year we celebrate the achievements of our foster grandparents and senior companions,” said Susan Lavigne, Director of the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companions programs. Typically, the event is a large in-person gathering attended by teachers, principals, families, case workers and social workers. “All the people associated with our volunteers gather to say thank you. That’s a pretty joyous event,” Lavigne said.
This year, with the restrictions of the pandemic, things needed to look different. “Of course, during the pandemic, one cannot have a large group. We still wanted to recognize our volunteers, so we created this drive through recognition which we’re doing in four locations around Southern Maine,” Lavigne said.
Windham Primary School, which is one of several area sites that host Foster Grandparents, offered the use of the bus lane. This was perfect for the event, Lavigne said, making it safe for staff and for the volunteers, who received a bag of small tokens of appreciation to thank them for their service.
Volunteers drove through the bus lane, stopping at a designated spot and staying in their cars to safely interact with the staff, who wore masks and maintained a safe distance throughout the event. Some teachers from the school were also present to cheer on the volunteers from afar.
“They’re incredible volunteers in the community, and they mean a lot,” Lavigne said. This event is one way to say thank you, she said. At the end of the school year, students and teachers also participated in “Project Gratitude” creating artwork, poems, letters and videos to be forwarded to the volunteers as a thank you, since they couldn’t thank them in person, Lavigne said.
Receiving recognition Tuesday were Foster Grandparents Ellie DiDonato (Fourth Grade, Windham Primary School); Polly Dyer (Fourth Grade, Manchester School); Marianne Marden (Kindergarten, Windham Primary School); Dolores McMillin (First Grade, Windham Primary School); Joan Montefesco (First Grade, Raymond Elementary School); Laura Menezes (Second Grade, Windham Primary School); Laura Sue Nichols (Second Grade, Windham Primary School); Nancy Regier (Fourth Grade, Windham Christian Academy); and Bonnie Rogers (Kindergarten, Windham Primary School. Also receiving recognition Tuesday was Elizabeth Paige, a Senior Companion visiting older adults throughout the Lake Region.
The Foster Grandparent and Senior Companions programs are an opportunity for individuals 55 and older to give back to their community in two different ways. Foster Grandparents volunteer between 10 and 40 hours per week in schools, Head Start programs, and child development centers. Senior Companions visit isolated older adults in their homes to offer companionship, help them get to medical appointments, do grocery shopping or essential errands, and provide respite for family caregivers.
The pandemic has changed the way these programs have operated in recent months. After the abrupt end of the school year, Foster Grandparents remained in contact joining in Zoom meetings or becoming pen pals with students. Senior Companions shifted to conducting wellness checks and socializing via telephone calls.
“One of the things that has become strikingly clear during this pandemic is the crisis of isolation, especially for older adults. Our senior companions have not skipped a beat,” Lavigne said. They maintained contact with their clients, reinforcing the need to stay in contact with their doctors for regular health needs, making sure they had food, and “mostly making sure people had someone to talk to,” Lavigne said.
According to the 2019-2020 Annual Report for the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companions programs, a total of 143 volunteers have provided 108,005 hours of community service throughout the year in Southern Maine. 25 of those have been volunteering for 10 years or more. Lavigne said that the number recognized at the four events was 117, as some have left the program since the beginning of the year.
Both programs are national programs, locally sponsored by the Opportunity Alliance. They are funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The Opportunity Alliances sponsors the Foster Grandparent program in Cumberland, York and western Oxford counties, and the Senior Companions program in Cumberland and York counties.
“We would like people to know that the foster grandparents and senior companions are incredible, valuable community members,” said Lavigne. “The Opportunity Alliance is incredibly proud of its volunteers and we look forward to them returning fully in the community when it’s safe for everybody.” <