New York City's Foster Grandparent Program: A Model of Older Volunteer Management

Article excerpt

It is generally acknowledged that older persons represent a vast- and largely untapped-volunteer resource for America's communities (Reinventing Aging, 2003). It is also now axiomatic that older people need to feel socially useful and productive in order to age well. Developing opportunities for seniors to serve their communities is, therefore, clearly in the interest of everyone concerned. This article will discuss the National Foster Grandparent Program (FGP) to draw some lessons about win-win older volunteer program design. It will also review New York City's Foster Grandparent Program, administered by the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA), as a model of effective implementation.

BACKGROUND ON NATIONAL PROGRAM

The first federally funded program to engage older volunteers in community service, the National Foster Grandparent Program, continues to bring seniors and children together for mutual benefit 43 years after its inception. Through more than 300 local sponsors of the program, nearly 30,000 income-eligible elders provide one-on-one support, guidance, and services to children with exceptional or special needs in every state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. In 2007, just over half (or 55%) of foster grandparents were between 60 to 74 years of age, and 45% were over the age of 75. Among them, they volunteered more than 25 million hours and benefited the lives of more than 284,000 children (Corporation for National and Community Service [CNCS], 2007). Foster grandparents receive a small nontaxable stipend that allows them to serve at little or no cost to themselves, but the value of their service to at-risk children cannot be measured.

The services of Foster Grandparent volunteers are focused on children who have been identified by professionals as having special or exceptional needs. These include abused and neglected children, troubled teens, premature infants, children with physical, mental and emotional disabilities, and children of incarcerated parents. The Corporation for National and Community Service data from 2006 reveal that across the country Foster Grandparent Program volunteers serve primarily in elementary schools (35%), Head Start programs (17%), day care programs (12%), preschools (9%), and middle school (5%). The largest groups served by foster grandparents are children with learning disabilities (25% of all children served); children with developmental disabilities (10% of all children served); and children with emotional disabilities such as autism (9% of all children served; CNCS, 2007).

The focus on children and youth distinguishes the Foster Grandparent Program from its sister federal programs, The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) and the Senior Companions Program. The RSVP connects volunteers age 55 and over with varied community service opportunities. These volunteers, for example, build houses, provide telephone reassurance to shut-ins, work on environmental projects, and help out at community organizations. The Senior Companions Program, like the Foster Grandparent Program, recruits income-eligible seniors who are 60 years and older. Senior companions serve other adults, primarily frail seniors in need of one-on-one independent living support. They provide companionship, friendly visiting, help with some daily tasks, and transportation assistance to medical appointments or other errands.

All three community service programs began as federal demonstration projects in the 1960s and 1970s, crafted with the belief that older adults are valuable resources to their communities. In l973, the programs were jointly authorized under the Domestic Volunteer Service Act to be administered by the federal agency ACTION. In l993, when the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) was created as the independent federal agency responsible for administering the federal domestic national service and volunteer programs, the programs were grouped under the umbrella of "Senior Corps. …