Since school started this year, Elizabeth Morris has gotten no less than 20 hugs a day. About 30 kindergarteners call her abuela or Grandma Bette. They draw her pictures of trees and clouds. They give her heart-shaped notes: I love you! She sticks them on the refrigerator in her apartment, about a mile from Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary.
Morris, 74, lives alone, in a low-income high-rise. Her days are busy, serving as a "foster grandparent" for the school through the Seniors in Service of Tampa Bay program. She earns a stipend of $2.65 per hour for her 30-hour week at the school. She treasures the love notes and hugs more than the paycheck.
But the federally funded program has been at risk of being wiped out by lawmakers. A budgetary bill approved by the U.S. House proposed eliminating the Corporation for National and Community Services and its programs, including Senior Corps., which funds Seniors in Service. The Senate was expected to vote on the matter this week, after press time.
The national foster grandparents program serves more than 80 schools and nonprofit day cares in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said Lisa Smiler, director of programs for Seniors in Service. There are 149 foster grandparents in the program, which receives $622,000 annually in federal funds.
Educators at Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary say the volunteers are crucial. Sandra Sierra, who has taught at the school for 37 years, says they rely on 28 regular volunteers, including six from the foster grandparent program.
The children get exposure to seniors who also benefit through making a contribution and a connection, Sierra said.
Many of the students are immigrants who live far from their grandparents, in Cuba, Guatemala and Mexico. Nearly half spoke only Spanish when the school year started.
Morris started out focusing her attention on two children. One spoke only Spanish, and spoke so softly that it was hard for Morris to hear her. The other had trouble focusing.
Recently they've blossomed.
"They just said: 'Here I am,' " remembers Morris, who grew up in Tampa with her parents and Cuban grandmother, who taught her Spanish.
Morris helps the students complete assignments and keeps them on task. For some, this is their first time having to listen to someone other than a parent. She translates for the children and loves on them with hugs. Recently they read a book together called Yellow Foods.
"What is this here?" Morris asked the students.
"Es un platano y una naranja," some replied in unison.
"Now in English."
"That's a banana and an orange."
Parents rarely volunteer, not even for field trips, says Angela Ossorio, who teaches kindergarten with Morris' help. Most are working.
In a nearby classroom, Frank Vergara works with two second-graders, learning to tell time on analog clocks, printed on a worksheet.
Malena Oms, 7, says her own grandpa lives in Argentina.
Vergara's voice is quiet as he gently corrects her worksheet and explains what it means when both clock hands point to the same number.
He is 72, he tells a visitor, and once worked in the real estate business in Venezuela.
Seven-year-old Yimy Bernardo overhears his story. "You're older than my sister," he says. "She's 21."
Vergara smiles and brags on Yimy: "The thing about this guy — he's a good dancer."
Vergara's wife heard about the foster program on the radio and suggested he apply. When she died last year, he took off a couple of weeks and then came back. He missed seeing the children and having a sense of purpose.
"I was doing nothing before I came here," he said. "This is my best time in the mornings. I can't wait to come here."
Before becoming a foster grandma, Morris had worked in accounting and at a bilingual answering service. Her own children live in different cities, and she rarely sees her five grandchildren. She has been impressed by the school system and the effort teachers put into educating the children.
Without the foster grandparent program, she fears she would just sit home and grow old.
"You come here," she said, "you get younger."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.