Children's Voice July/Aug 2006

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It Takes an Intergenerational Village to Raise Kids in Care

Lia Rowley occasionally meets child care professionals who tell her that mixing abused and neglected kids with senior citizens is a daunting idea. "Nonsense," says Rowley. "It's a no-brainer." Either way, this 60-something grandmother of 10, and her equally enthusiastic board, is moving ahead with creating an intergenerational Children's Village in Sonoma County, California.

Rowley, a child advocate with more than 30 years experience working with people at risk, has long been aware that kids, especially those from abusive backgrounds, have had little experience with the type of unconditional love grandparents can provide. "Having older people living in their own apartments, right on the village property, will add a touch of hominess to the atmosphere," Rowley says. "I'm betting that the presence of elders will do more to deinstitutionalize the village than anything else we could do."

Children's Village, now taking shape on two acres of land in Santa Rosa, will not be an institution. The village will include eight family homes for up to six kids each, a village center, a basketball court, and gardens. Every home will have live-in parents, in addition to six grandparent units onsite. What caring elders will bring to the table is their gift of time. As fellow residents and neighbors, they will be free to provide one-on-one time to children hungry for personal attention.

Rowley's professional experience with foster kids has made her acutely aware of the issues faced by hard-to-place kids being shuttled from one placement to another, never quite feeling at home. She wants the village to be different from just another short-term placement for foster kids. "We want the village to be a place for kids to call home for as long as they need it, or until they are ready to make it on their own."

The Board of Directors of Children's Village, like Rowley, is jazzed that the idea of mixing elders with kids has captured the local community's imagination. There's a sizeable senior presence in the heart of California's wine country, ready and willing to volunteer. "All we had to do was float the concept of mixing the generations," Rowley explains, "and this community, young and old, embraced it with enthusiasm."

Grandparents who live onsite will not receive a salary. They will be volunteers who, in return for a discount on the cost of their rental units, will commit to volunteering with the kids in a variety of ways, 10-12 hours per week. "They will be there to play and read and listen to the kids," Rowely says. "Life's about relationships. The elders will have the time to be there for the kids and for the village parents too. With their life experience and wisdom, we see them as a tremendous asset to the village."

Rowley realizes that living in a village with 48 kids is not for all seniors. "I would venture to say there are retired folks out there for whom living in a village full of needy children would be like a day in hell," she laughs. But "there are a surprising number of elders who really enjoy being with kids. These are the ones already asking to be considered as onsite volunteers for Children's Village. These are the elders who love the energy and enthusiasm of children--older people who are open to learning from youth as well as being role models for them."

Although they are volunteers, the elders will be treated and considered as staff, including attending staff meetings. "Everyone has to be on the same page," Rowley explains.

At the same time, because the elders will not be punching a time clock, their duties will be flexible. "I see them free to wander around the village, getting to know the kids, spending time with them, throwing a ball around, or maybe reading stories to the younger ones. They need to be free to do what grandparents do with their own grandkids."

Asked about what will happen when the otherwise vigorous elders are no longer able to be as active with the kids, Rowley replied, "What happens in life? What happens in a family? There may come a time when the children are helping to take care of grandma or grandpa. That's the cycle of life. That's community."

In addition to including senior citizens as an integral part of the village community, Rowley and her board are also committed to keeping sibling groups together. Kids placed in foster care homes are often separated from their brothers and sisters--nationally, about 75% of sibling groups end up in different foster care placements. "We will make every effort to see that brothers and sisters stay together at Children's Village," Rowley promises. "We want them to see our village as their family, their home."

The first stage of Children's Village, with four family homes for the children and three apartments for seniors, is slated to open this summer. Funding for the construction has come from the community's generosity. The public agencies already providing support for the county's foster children will pick up ongoing operating costs.

Children's Village is not the first intergenerational facility for abused and neglected kids. Hope Meadows in Rantoul, Illinois, operates a similar program using the services of "honorary grandparents" who also live onsite. Time will tell if the village in California wine country will become more than a daring experiment.

--Submitted by Hank Mattimore, Santa Rosa, California, a court-appointed special advocate for children and a member of the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission

A Little Tutoring Goes a Long Way

The staff at Lorain County Children Services could see it coming. The abused and neglected children in their custody tended to score 15%-20% lower on Ohio's school proficiency tests than did peers who lived with their families; at that rate, they faced greater odds of eventually dropping out of school.

The staff decided a little one-on-one academic help just might make a difference. In 2001, the agency hired three tutors to help five children with their schoolwork for a couple hours each week after school. The children's academic improvement was noticeable, and the idea caught on as more social workers began requesting tutors for children in their care. Five years later, Lorain County Children Services' School Success Program funds about 60 tutors to help more than 150 children with their schoolwork.

Tutors work with the children in their homes, including foster homes, relatives' homes, or birthparents' homes, for as little as one hour or as much as eight hours weekly. Lorain County Children Services, or the child's caregiver, works with the local schools to obtain a child's school academic records so tutors can map out an academic plan.

In addition to the tutoring, some children receive loaned computers loaded with academic software. If a child's case with Lorain County Children Services is closed, including if they are adopted, the agency will continue providing tutoring help for the child if the child still needs it.

"It's been pretty amazing to see the kinds of things it's done for our kids," says School Success Program Supervisor Lea Arcuri. "It doesn't take a lot to make a huge difference."

An evaluation of the School Success Program, conducted by a professor at Case Western Reserve University, has found the mean grade point average of the young participants has increased gradually since the program's inception--from 1.7 in 2001 to 2.565 in 2005.

"It's that one-on-one relationship that has made them successful in school," Arcuri says. "It's worked for every group of kids."

In surveys about the School Success Program, 90% of the social workers, school administrators, and teachers reported positive growth in children's abilities in school and their confidence and attitudes toward school and schoolwork. More than 90% reported positive impacts from the program on teacher attitudes toward their students. And 90% of the caregivers surveyed said the program had improved results in behavior and attitudes about school for the children in their care.

Last spring, the Ohio Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development awarded the School Success Program its 2006 Civic Leadership in Education Award.

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