Tony Hill was getting a little fussy, squirming and squealing on Shirley Henderson’s lap.
“It’s snack time, don’t you know it?” said Shirley, 80, of East St. Louis, laughing and smothering the 18-month-old with kisses.
They were sitting in a rocking chair in the infants and toddlers room at East St. Louis Family Development Center. Shirley fed Tony soy milk in a green sippy cup.
“I have to lay him across my lap for him to go to sleep,” she said. “Otherwise, he’ll throw a tantrum.”
Shirley flipped Tony over on his stomach, his feet danging in small white tennis shoes. She rubbed his back in a circular motion. He was asleep in 2 minutes.
“We spend almost as much time with these kids as their parents do,” Shirley said. “We feel like they’re our own children.”
Shirley is a volunteer with the Southwestern Illinois College Foster Grandparent Program, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
About 50 seniors 55 and older work 20 to 40 hours a week, tutoring and mentoring children in need at schools, hospitals, child-care centers and other non-profit organizations in St. Clair and Randolph counties.
“It’s a win-win-win situation,” said Cheryl Brunsmann, executive director of SWIC’s Programs and Services for Older Persons.
Volunteers, who all meet low-income requirements, receive stipends. Local agencies get extra manpower and children get extra help.
“Some of these kids have no other grandparents, so they need that role model of an older adult,” Cheryl said. “And school-age children benefit from one-on-one or small-group help with reading or homework.”
Making a contribution
Shirley has been a foster grandparent for 10 years, first at Phoenix Court Head Start and now at the Family Development Center, operated by Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House, a Methodist social-service agency.
Shirley feeds and rocks children in the infants and toddlers room. she cleans snack trays, changes bed linens and does laundry.
I get so much joy and pleasure out of it, knowing that I’m helping someone. Lots of single mothers have to go to work, and they need child care.
Shirley Henderson on being a foster grandparent
“I get so much joy and pleasure out of it, knowing that I’m helping someone,” she said. “Lots of single mothers have to go to work, and they need child care.”
Shirley was wearing a cobbler smock to protect her clothes from spit-ups, and big silver earrings with her short white hair.
In years past, Shirley worked as a sales clerk at T.J. Maxx and helped open new stores. She has three grown children, three grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren of her own.
Being a foster grandparent makes her feel like she’s still contributing to society.
“She’s here every day, and she’s always on time,” said JoAnn Evans, 53, of Belleville, a teacher in the infants and toddlers room.
Just having Shirley around is motivational for JoAnn and teacher’s aide Tyra Rogers, 41, of Cahokia. Sometimes Tyra asks her for advice on dealing with her own seven children.
“She gets around really well,” Tyra said. “I get up in the morning and my back will be hurting — maybe it’s the mattress — but I tell my husband, ‘Granny at the day care is 80 years old, and she’s full of energy.’”
Things can get chaotic with eight babies in one room, but Shirley has plenty of patience.
“There are times when all of the kids are crying,” JoAnn said. “That’s when we need her the most. She has that extra arm and extra comfort that the kids need.”
27 years and counting
Shirley is one of four foster grandparents at the Family Development Center. The others are Mary Cummings, Marlene Williams and Ethel Robinson.
Mary, 90, of East St. Louis, is the oldest. She retired after working 23 years as a sample maker, sewing gowns and robes at Barad Lingerie Co. She has been a foster grandparent for 27 years.
I got tired of just lying around the house. You’re always going into the kitchen and getting a snack. That makes you fat. Volunteering gives you something to do. It keeps you active.
Mary Cummings on signing up to volunteer
“I got tired of just lying around the house,” Mary said. “You’re always going into the kitchen and getting a snack. That makes you fat. Volunteering gives you something to do. It keeps you active. By the time I get done, I’m tired. I go home and rest.”
On this day, Mary was passing out napkins and spoons for lunch in a class of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. Her red hat with the brim turned up matched her red jacket.
Mary works three days a week, helping children work puzzles, put on their coats and sing songs such as “Wheels on the Bus.” She also ties an awful lot of shoes.
“I don’t go outside anymore like I used to because I’m old,” she said. “I just sit and wait until they come back in. I used to go everywhere with them — apple picking, pumpkin picking — but I don’t do that anymore. I can’t get up on the bus.”
50 Foster grandparents in the program
19 Sites in St. Clair and Randolph counties
Like Shirley, Mary is known as “Granny” at the center. Hugs are her favorite part of the job.
“Sometimes the children will say things that will tickle you to death,” she said. “I’ll go home and just laugh.”
Mary has plenty of experience in child care with 21 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren of her own.
Teacher Yolanda Edwards, 45, of Brooklyn, is inspired by her dedication.
“She drives herself here every day,” Edwards said. “Her mind is still real sharp. She can remember things that happened when she was a little girl. She remembers everything.”
How to help
- Volunteer: Foster grandparents must be 55 or older and meet low-income requirements. For more information, call 618-234-4410, ext. 7024 or ext. 7062.
- Donate: Make checks payable to Foster Grandparent Program and mail to 201 N. Church St., Belleville, IL 62220-4098