Ileta Hopper, other Foster Grandparents, make big impact locally

Audrey Gomez

Ileta Hopper spends many hours each week helping students and teachers at Oak Heights School.

She’s a shining example of the success of the Foster Grand parents program, which has a significant impact in schools and other activities throughout Linn County.

At a swearing-in ceremony at the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments in Albany last month, Oak Heights Elementary School Principal Courtney Murphy joined the list of speakers which included Rep. Peter DeFazio and Albany Mayor Sharon Kanopa.

“This was really important for me to be here today, and to express my gratitude and appreciation for what this program has offered the community of Sweet Home as well as Oak Heights Elementary School,” said Murphy, who broke away from back-to-school activities to be present.

The program pairs volunteers who are at least 55 years old “with community programs and schools to mentor and tutor children with disadvantaged and exceptional needs,” said Alicia Lucke, Foster Parent Program Director.

According to Murphy, it has made a tremendous impact on more than 90 of the 275 students at Oak Heights.

“Ileta Hopper walked into our door and she helped with both first and second grade her first year here with two first-grade teachers and two second-grade teachers and worked really hard,” Murphy said. “She was all over our building. She didn’t just come in a couple of hours on a Tuesday like a volunteer would come. She came sometimes eight and 12 hours a day, even though she wasn’t paid for all of those hours.”

The program offers a tax-free hourly stipend to help cover costs for income eligible volunteers, according to a Foster Grandparent brochure.

Hopper volunteers at Oak Heights and the Boys & Girls Club.

“She reads with kids. She listens to kids. She eats lunch with kids,” Murphy said. “She helps them look at math in a conceptual way instead of just a bunch of numbers they’re supposed to have a pattern and a process to. Our kids at our school call her Grandma Hopper and she is a wonderful human being that we are blessed to have in our building but also because of the training she has gotten through the program, she was very skilled and very knowledgeable and an advocate for other grandparents being a part of this program.”

Hopper, who was in the audience during the press conference, was visibly touched by Murphy’s comments.

“It takes a village to raise our children and to give them the helping hands they need to be successful after high school so they can be college and career-ready – an educational-ese term – but they need hope and they need people and we were offered this opportunity, and I said yes,” Murphy said.

About the program

The Foster Grandparent Program had a change in management this year. It was run by the Albany Parks & Recreation Department in recent years but is now managed by OCWCOG.

“Our grant ended and we decided not to reapply,” said Katie Nooshazar, Albany recreation programs manager. “It is a multi-county contract and our designated service area is Albany only. We didn’t have the staff resources to do the program justice in all the areas it serves.”

OCWCOG covers Linn, Benton, and Lincoln counties.

“When the grant was nearing its final (third) year with the city, it made sense for it to transition to OCWCOG, where the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, a sister program to Foster Grandparents, is also managed,” Lucke said.

The Foster Grandparents Program is funded through a Federal Senior Corps Grant, by the Corporation for National and Community Service and requires a 10 percent match from local and state community partners, Lucke said.

For the 2015-16 fiscal year, OCW Senior Services Foundation is providing financial support. Call-A-Ride and Dial-A-Bus are providing in-kind transportation support. Local vendors sponsoring volunteer trainings include Carinos, Cidicci’s, Costco, and Red Robin.

DeFazio announced at the press conference that CNCS has awarded OCWCOG a three-year Senior Corps grant of $425,000.

“My association with the Senior Corps of programs goes back, I just thought about it, 38 years,” DeFazio said. “I had hair then. A guy named Ron Webb, under the auspices of Lane County, started the first older American volunteer program in this region. It was a senior companion program. It was probably the best job I ever had.”

DeFazio was the assistant director under Webb, the director.

“He did the bureaucracy and I dealt with the volunteers,” DeFazio said. “It was fabulous. I recruited them, trained them.”

It was through training that he ended up getting into politics, DeFazio said.

“I loved that job, I loved that program and I was completing a degree in gerontology at the University of Oregon and then one of my trainers at an event said, ‘I’m applying for a job for this congressman guy and he wants somebody to take care of seniors. I don’t think that’s something that I’d be good at but I think you’d be really good at it.’”

DeFazio talked about the importance of children having stable people in their lives and the role programs like the Foster Grandparent Program play.

“These are some of the most cost-effective programs in the entire federal government and why anybody wants to cut ’em is beyond me,” DeFazio said.

“We are engaged in a fight over budget priorities and we are going to be having to fight to fully fund these programs. In fact, I’d love to increase the funding because I know there’s a lot more seniors who have tremendous skills out there in the community that they would like to get into one or another of these programs and would love to be giving back to our country.”

To learn more about becoming a Foster Grandparent, contact Alicia Lucke at (541) 924-8440.