Nationwide program places ‘Grandparents’ in 30 Syracuse sites

Bill Zimmer, 56, helps out at a Van Duyn Elementary School third-grade class every day. The students call him “Grandpa.”

He is part of a national program called Foster Grandparents that places senior citizens who are older than 55 in classrooms or day care centers as assistants.

Beth O'Hara

According to the director of the Syracuse branch, Beth O’Hara, there are currently 91 volunteer foster grandparents of mostly low to medium income assigned to around 30 sites in Syracuse. The program gives senior citizens a purpose to leave the house and be active every day, while students benefit greatly from being tutored by respected role models.

Zimmer, 56, lives alone in Syracuse. “It’s nice to feel part of a family. They’re like my surrogate grandkids,” Zimmer said.

On a recent class day, Zimmer walked around a table of students and gently explained to one student how to solve a problem. When the student understood, Zimmer squeezed him on the shoulder and moved on to the next student.

“They need the father figure at least for part of the day,” said Zimmer, who helps out in the third-grade class from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. from Monday to Thursday. He recognizes that a lot of Van Duyn students have absent fathers. When one of the third-graders was caught selling lighters at school, Zimmer said it reinforced their desperate need for positive role models.

“I respect their boundaries,” he said. “They size you up first and then they warm up to you very quickly.”

While the class lined up to walk to the cafeteria for lunch, Zimmer slouched a little to hold the hands of two students.

“They sometimes fight over holding my hand in the corridor,” Zimmer said. “They are very inquisitive and not afraid to ask questions. They would ask me why I have wrinkles, why my hair is gray, and why I have padding,” Zimmer said, pointing to his stomach and chuckling at the students’ honesty.

Claudia Stockard, principal of Van Duyn Elementary School, said the Foster Grandparent program is a generational bridge that is desperately needed in the community.

“A lot of our parents are young who don’t have what I’d call ‘mother’s wit,’” Stockard said. “It comes with life experience, which our foster grandparents have.”

Foster grandparents in Syracuse are mostly female. At Van Duyn, there are four grandmas and one grandpa.

“I would love to see some more males as foster grandparents, and it’s great to have a Caucasian male,” Stockard said, referring to Zimmer. “But it would be even better to have an African-American grandpa. As you can see, most of our students are African-American.”

Denise Neimeier, a special education teacher at Van Duyn, appreciates having Ethel Axelson, 81, serving as a foster grandmother in the classroom.

“It helps with behavior having ‘Nanny’ there because it really sets a different tone.”

Axelson said the students are always respectful to her. “I tell them to call me ‘Nanny’ because my own grandchildren call me ‘Nanny,’ ” she said.

Teresa Zollo, a third-grade teacher, appreciates “Nanny” because she can help the children one-on-one — for example, paying attention to how well the students are doing with their reading.

Anna Whatley

Anna Whatley, 76, has been a foster grandmother for 15 years and now assists in a kindergarten class at McKinley-Brighton Magnet Elementary School.

When one of the students was struggling recently, Whatley immediately helped.

“Grandma knows what you need before you even ask for it,” said Nora Kirst, who teaches the kindergarten class where Whatley assists.

Whatley made a lot of good friends in the program, and every Friday, the foster grandparents have a gathering where they receive updates from O’Hara and a chance to mingle.