Judy Harris, Bonnie Ventucci, Natalie Serra, Sharon Kiderlen and Sue Fairall get to continue what they’ve done much of their lives – provide care, support and, yes, love to children, even though these days they aren’t theirs by blood.
The return for that investment are children who touch the lives and hearts of the women and men – their “foster grandparents” – who keep a watchful eye over them.
These women and others were among about 50 volunteers honored this year for their role in these children at a luncheon on June 21 in O’Fallon. They are participants in the North East Community Action Corporation’s [NECAC] Foster Grandparent Program.
NECAC is a 12-county not-for-profit social service, community health and public house community action agency. The foster grandparent program serves St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties.
The program, which began 51 years ago, pairs screened volunteers, age 55 and older, with schools and private day care centers who provide care and one-on-one instruction with young children. Some program participants are volunteers, others are eligible to receive a small stipend depending on their income and some help with transportation expenses.
For many of the men and women in the program, working with young children is nothing new – they often are parents with their own children and grandchildren.
“They really enjoy what they do,” said Brent Engel, a spokesperson for NECAC. Engel added that the agency is always looking for more volunteers.“You know why I do it? I feel like I’m needed, something to do with giving back I guess,” said Ventucci, 83, of St. Peters, who has been a volunteer five days a week at the Mid Rivers Day Care in St. Peters.
“Some of these kids don’t have a grandma, they come up to us and say ‘Grandma Bonnie, Grandma Bonnie,’ they get to know us and they love us,” she said. “It’s a rewarding feeling when someone else cares for us and they do.”
Ventucci works with children aged 3-5, getting them ready for school.
“That can be getting them to know the differences in colors, the alphabet, songs, skills with their hands like using a scissors and cutting, just a little bit of everything to get them ready,” she said. “And how to behave and get along with other friends.”
Ventucci came to the daycare twelve years ago.
“My husband died and I was lost, I worked at the library for 33 years, I sold my home, moved out to St. Peters,” Ventucci said. “Natalie was at the daycare and told me about it. She said ‘do you love children,’ and I said ‘oh yeah.’”
“Natalie” is Natalie Serra, who has been working at the same day care for 19 years. At 93, she works three days a week, working with very young children under age 2.
“The best – it’s the best,” Serra said.
“I’ve got good boss,” she added, nodding to Sheri Rodgers, who operates the center. Serra said she does what’s she’s asked to do.
“I love them [the children] all, no matter what,” Serra said. “If they’re in a bad mood try to get them out of it, when they leave their parents they are crying and I try to talk to them and play with them.”
She also has two daughters, four grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
“I hope I got them all in, I’ve got a new baby, and I always forget to put him in,” Serra said.
Kiderlen, 70, ran a licensed daycare for 16 years. She works with second graders at Lincoln Elementary School in Troy, who need extra help with reading and math.
“It gives me a chance to get up in the morning, move around, it gives me something to do with my life,” she said.
Harris works with two and three year olds as a “floater” at Just 4 Us Childcare and Learning Center in St. Charles. She was a pre-school and kindergarten teacher for more than 40 years and she says she can’t get enough of working with children.
“I’m just not ready to give it up,” Harris said.
For teachers and Rodgers, the grandparents program provides not only needed extra hands but something missing from many young children’s lives.
“There’s always a special bond,” Rodgers said.
Older volunteers can lend some stability to some young children whose lives are anything but stable. Big families are rare these days and both parents are working so children are in daycare, go to school and are in latchkey programs after school, said Fairall, 62, from Troy, who works with third graders through fifth graders Cuivre Elementary School in Lincoln County.
And families also have other problems.
“There are parents who cannot hold down a house, so they are in and out of grandma’s house, some of them living out of cars and stuff,” Fairall said. “They don’t come [to school] in the best of shape.”
It can also take a toll on caregivers who become attached.
“My little boy with two parents in jail. All of the sudden, they are moving him out of grandmas to somewhere else and I don’t know where,” Fairall said. “One day he’s not in school or two weeks he’s not in school, it’s hard.”
Ventucci said parents are often busy these days.
“Their parents are never at home. One is going here, one is going there,” she said. People these days also often don’t to want to sacrifice acquiring things, she said. “They won’t give up anything, they won’t do without,” Ventucci said.
“It’s kind of sad sometimes,” Ventucci said. Children find themselves often shuttled between parents. “But we’re always just grandma and they love us,” she said. She and other volunteers are there to listen and sometimes help by alerting others of issues within a family.
“I don’t know how to explain it to you, they [children] light up when they see you, I had one mother tell me that she [her child] gets more excited seeing me than her own mother,” she said.
“See, I’m here every day and on Fridays’ I paint the girls nails and they can’t wait to Fridays. Then I have it with the little boys because they want it too, I say ‘no, Daddy, won’t let me.’”
Serra has also seen families change but it’s not all bad.
“They’re [kids] smarter,” she said with a smile. “They know what you’re going to say beforehand.” Kids, Serra said, are always kids.
Kids also remember. Ventucci was at a church picnic recently and she heard a young voice call “Grandma Bonnie.”
“Here she was in the sixth grade – I gave her a bottle when she was a little thing – and she remembers Grandma Bonnie,” Ventucci said.
It felt good. “Oh God it does, her mom and dad said she knew you were going to be here and she had to come.”
More information is available at the O’Fallon NECAC office at  272-3477.