Foster Grandparents tutor, mentor local students

Catholic Charities is sponsoring a program that facilitates senior citizens who volunteer three days per week in the schools, tutoring and encouraging students who need extra help.

“Grandparents are the fastest growing class of caregivers of children in the Commonwealth,” said Tiziana Dearing, the president of Catholic Charities.

Foster grandparents are senior citizens who often have already raised a child, so not only are they signing up again to help a child, they do so knowing what it involves, she said. “That is the definition of nobility.”

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said as the city’s mayor and the parent of four children, he appreciates the Foster Grandparent program’s work in the Somerville schools.

“It is great to have a partner like Catholic Charities to provide this opportunity for both the students and the volunteers,” the mayor said, whose mother, Marie, is a foster grandparent volunteer in a Head Start program.

“When she retired she was looking for a way to give back to the community and work with kids, which she loves,” he said. “Working with the kids has kept her active and boosting her self-esteem.”

The training and administration of the program is done at its Union Square office in Somerville, said Kathleen D. Keenan, who has been the program coordinator for three years.

The volunteers are specifically trained to work with students with developmental challenges and special needs in a 20 hour program, she said.

Keenan said the volunteers, who are placed in both Catholic and public schools, do a wonderful job for the students. “There are 36 volunteers in public schools, 22 in Catholic schools and five in training.”

At Malden’s Salemwood elementary school, Melvin Ritter is a great example of a volunteer, who goes beyond academic tutoring, she said. “Mel has set up an area in the school’s library, where he gives them both academic and social mentoring.”

Students vie for the chance to have “Lunchtime with Mel,” when they stay inside to have lunch with him and play chess, she said.

Ritter is truly a remarkable man in a community where there are not always grandparents or fathers or other positive male role models and influences, she said. “He tells them to button their top button, pull up their pants and comb their hair--and they love it!”

Another volunteer who exemplifies the programs goals is Mary-Louise Mallahan, who volunteers at Medford’s St. Joseph Elementary School, she said.

On one of her evaluation visits, Keenan met Mallahan and saw her in action with the students. “She said to me that she did not know how many students she really helps. But, I watched her and it was incredible how many students she was able to help. She was so patient.”

A freelance technology journalist, Elizabeth M. Ferrarini, said she is a parishioner at Arlington’s St. Agnes Church, where she saw a notice in the parish bulletin inviting older parishioners to volunteer at St. Agnes School as part of Catholic Charities Foster Grandparent program.

“Because I couldn’t commit to 15 hours every week, I, unfortunately, wasn’t a fit for this program,” she said. “However, the more I talked to the woman at Catholic Charities of Boston, the more I was convinced that I should pursue volunteering on my own.”

Right from the start, she said there was something special about coming into St. Agnes’, beginning with the way the principal, Helen Blinstrub, includes the day’s Gospel, the Our Father and the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning announcements over the intercom.”

Blinstrub said she was very happy that Catholic Charities referred Ferrarini to the school.

“She is a wonderful person and she is very helpful with the students and the teachers,” she said.

“I’ve helped students to understand how to count change, how to tell time, and how to select the correct subject pronouns. During Advent, I helped a student who had been out sick catch up on an important assignment writing about the birth of Jesus Christ as if it was a current news story,” she said.

Studies show when older people are active and involved in interesting activities they live longer, she said, so her message to senior citizens is: “I urge other Catholic retirees to knock on the door of their local parish school and to take a look inside.”