Helping Across Generations

Kathleen Piggins
November 4, 2002

Participants in the Travelling Grannies and Granpas ProgramWhen
Damon, 8, couldn't read or write and created
problems in his second grade class, his teacher could
not give him the one-on-one attention he needed. Damon's
disruptions also made the task of teaching a class
of 31 students difficult. Fortunately, Damon's
teacher knew just what he needed to succeed: a "Grandpa"
named James Palmer.

Palmer, 71, is a volunteer in an innovative program
that partners children in need with a caring older
adult. Traveling Grannies & Grandpas (TGGP) was
started in 1992 by Peggy Lawrence Burns in Grand Rapids,

Damon was initially reluctant to go to Palmer, but
after a few weeks he became anxious for the daily
interaction. Slowly, he began reading and his behavior
improved in the classroom as well. He told Palmer
that he didn't feel "different" anymore and was enjoying school.

Seeing the need

Grand Rapids is a medium-sized city where the percentage
of children in poverty—13.4 percent—is
below the national average of 18 percent. But Burns
saw a gap in the city's community services when
it came to helping pregnant and parenting teens.

Burns was responding to an alarming rise in teen
pregnancies. She believed that these children having
children needed help from their elders with the difficult
job of raising confident youngsters who would be ready
to learn when they reached school age.

At the time, Burns was the director of the Foster
Grandparents program, a national service program that
trained and placed low-income older adults in classrooms,
to act as classroom aides.The volunteers received
a small, non-taxable stipend of $2.10 an hour.

Burns envisioned a similar model that would provide
pregnant and parenting teens with mentors. With assistance
from the Foster Grandparents Program, Gerontology
Network (a non-profit organization in Grand Rapids
that assists older adults), and other community organizations
TGGP was launched with two volunteers and twice as
many teens.

After years of growth in the program, a decline in
teen pregnancy rates has reduced the need for volunteers
in this area, and now there are just two volunteers
working with pregnant and parenting teens. The volunteers
visit the teens in their homes at least once each
week and also assist at a Grand Rapids high school
for pregnant teens. Often they help the teens with
their errands, and while doing so, find opportunities
to develop trusting relationships. Each volunteer
commits to 20 hours per week and works with anywhere
from two to fifteen teen moms.

Branching out

In 1999, the program expanded to include a school-based
mentoring program. Burns felt that her corps of wise
elders could have a positive effect in the face of
an alarming increase in school-based problems, including
substance abuse, violence and behavior issues, along
with increased class sizes and more children with
learning difficulties. There are now 26 mentors working
with about 350 schoolchildren.

Damon's friend Palmer is one of them. He serves
in a school helping with the three "R's,"
revised: reading, writing and the right way to act.

"Kids need emotional support they aren't
getting at home," said Palmer. "The behavior
is bad and the teachers can hardly do anything. The
kids want to interrupt the class to get attention.
I don't think most kids today feel special or
loved. I tell them they are loved and they smile that
just lights up their face."

He has helped many children with the basics, acting
as tutor to bring students up to grade-level in certain
subjects or helping students learn appropriate behaviors

"She shows me a better way"

"I have seen the biggest change in kids,"
Burns said. "The teen moms are not having repeated
pregnancies and are becoming better parents than before
the Traveling Grannies & Grandpas. I see the program
preventing further abuse—of the teen moms who
learn to respect themselves and of their children
who benefit from having the loving presence of a Grandma."

'She shows me a better way to handle my daughter when I get mad. She listens to me and gives extra good advice. She just makes sense.' Ashley GrahamLydia
Lee, 73, started with the program in 1992. She believes
that the single biggest influence she has in the teen
moms' lives is that she listens, without judgment.
She often reminds other adults of how different it
is to be a teen today than when she was young. Different
because of the greater prevalence of drugs, violence
and sex—temptations and dangers that Grandma
Lydia believes only amplify the generation gap.

One of Lee's "girls" is Ashley
Graham. Ashley says that Lee supports her in her plan
to go on to college (she is currently a senior at
Park High School in Grand Rapids) to study to become
a nurse.

Perhaps even more important. "Grandma
Lydia has helped me to be a better mom," Ashley
said. "She shows me a better way to handle my
daughter when I get mad. She listens to me and gives
extra good advice. She just makes sense."

Life lessons

"No one told them how to take care of themselves,
or their babies," says Lee. She believes that
a lack of self-esteem and good adult role models are
reasons for teens getting pregnant; their self image
is poor and few of these teens have positive adult

Lee encourages the teens she works with to achieve
in school and to raise their expectations—and
many of the teens she has mentored mention Lee as
the reason they went on to college, graduated from
high school or pursued a career. She keeps in touch
with most of the moms, and was recently invited to
the wedding of one of her former "girls."

Ashley credits Lee with teaching her to manage money
(to save for a car), her shopping savvy (finding bargains),
and her ability to take care of herself. And when
Ashley was tired and yelling at her daughter, Lee
helped her to understand age-appropriate behavior
and told her about better ways to discipline than
spanking or yelling.

TGGP in the schools

Yolanda Venezuela, principal at Jefferson Elementary,
welcomes the program volunteers in her school.

"They set a positive, relaxed and homey atmosphere.
There is a different type of respect for grandparents.
They are another role model for the children, seniors
giving to the community and giving the children one-on-one
attention," says Venezuela.

Palmer says the children he mentors welcome the additional
caring connection with an adult. "Sometimes
the mothers and fathers don't have the education
so kids don't do homework because there is no
one to help them," Palmer said.

The volunteers receive extensive training in issues
of child abuse and neglect, and the program has an
established system for reporting abuse. Palmer has
had the experience of working with a child who became
comfortable enough with him to disclose sexual abuse
at home. He listened and, following program guidelines,
told the child that she would be safe. He reported
her allegations to his supervisor, who contacted child
protective services. While Palmer is not sure where
the child is now, he is sure that she is in a safer
place because she felt secure enough with him to tell
him of the abuse.

Yet he believes he makes the biggest difference
in the lives of the children simply by listening and
conveying to the children that they are somebody.
With this simple message of self worth, he believes
he can boost their self-image and their ability to
form positive relationships with peers and adults.

Grannies & Grandpas facts
  • 2,418 Children have been served since 1992
  • 323 children were served in the 2001-2002
    school year
  • there are currently 28 volunteers; each
    volunteer is required to serve 20 hours per
    week, and must meet minimum training requirements

"I got involved in TGGP after I retired, and
I wanted to work with kids," Palmer explained.
"I have always liked kids, they are important.
As much as I have helped them, though, they have helped

TGGP volunteers work with children in 20 schools
during school hours. In many of the schools there
is a room just for the TGGP volunteers referred to
as the Grannies/Grandpas room. A few of the volunteers
also work with after-school programs. All volunteers
agree to 20 hours per week and ongoing training is
provided by the program.

A national model?

In Grand Rapids, community organizations praise TGGP
for helping stem abuse and continually refer teens
to the program as a model of parenting education.
The Carl's Foundation in Detroit, The Grand
Rapids Community Foundation and the State of Michigan
contribute funds to support TGGP, which has an annual
budget of $146,000, to support 28 volunteers working
with 323 teens and children in the 2001-2002 school
year. The volunteer's stipend of $2.10 per hour
is part of the cost, in addition to transportation
reimbursement for the volunteers.

Burns believes it is time for the program to go
national. "It (TGGP) has made such a difference
here in Kent County, it can make the same differences
in the lives of children anywhere," Burns asserted.
"The partnership of children with older adults,
that care, is powerful."

With the help of a grant from longtime supporter
The Carl's Foundation, Burns has prepared the
materials for replication in any community. In the
spring of 2002, the program was replicated in the
Detroit area by Catholic Social Services and has begun
serving children in that city.

"To start TGGP just give me a call or e-mail
me," Burns urged. She can be reached at


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Kathleen Piggins is a Michigan writer who focuses
primarily on parenting, child development and community