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Fostering friendships between kids, seniors


Chronicle Staff Writer

Friendship knows no age.

Children and seniors have been teaming up in the classroom for 29 years through the Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters foster grandparent program that has primarily been located in the Hartford area.

However, Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sister’s has recently decided to expand into more areas of northeast Connecticut, including Windham, said Orelia Barnaby, director of the foster grandparent program for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Barnaby said key locations for the program in the Windham area include Sweeney Elementary School, Natchaug Elementary School, Mansfield Discovery Depot and the Windham Willimantic Child Care site.

Foster grandparent Ramona Garcia has been with the program for 12 years and at Windham Willimantic Child Care for 10 years.

“I retired and was at home for two years,” Garcia said. “I decided to join the program because I was bored around my house.”

“The foster grandparent program is beneficial for the grandparents because instead of sitting around and doing nothing in retirement, they can use their experience and wisdom to help children,” Barnaby said. “The seniors help students learn to read, make decisions that keep them on the right path, stay in school and eventually graduate and become successful.”

“We play together with things like Play-Doh, we read together and I help them wash their hands,” Garcia said. “I help as much as I can.”

Garcia works with 11 to 13 kids in Erin Dombkowski’s preschool classroom in Windham Willimantic Child Care as well as eight toddlers on a daily basis.

“Grandparents like Ramona provide students with love, nurturing and feeling a sense of belonging,” Dombkowski said. “It also gives the grandparents a sense of accomplishment, pride and that they are part of a team.”

According to Barnaby, the grandparents in the program are often healthier because they have something to look forward to.

“I’ve had families call and tell me how the program has changed their relative’s life,” said Rafael Ovalle, eastern Connecticut foster grandparent program coordinator for Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters. “It can pull seniors right out of depression.”

“The grandparents give kids the extra support they may not have at home,” Ovalle said. “And it brings that warmth of having grandma at school, all while passing on beneficial wisdom to them.”

According to Dombkowski, the interaction between grandparents and the kids really enhances learning.

“Ramona interacts with all the kids, but she also has the ability to interact with kids that speak Spanish,” Dombkowski said. “She can translate from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish for them.”

This has been very beneficial for classroom learning, Dombkowski said.

“Also the kids just love Ramona,” Dombkowski said. “She is like a magnet and they run at her with hugs.”

“The most rewarding part of working with the children is when I walk into the room and they all say good morning,” Garcia said. “And when they hug me goodbye.”

“I’ve had only good experiences and I just love the kids,” Garcia said.

Seniors are recruited for the program at senior housing in Willimantic as well as different expos in the community, Barnaby said.

“Grandparents in the program have to have a physical done as well as a background check,” Barnaby said. “You have to be 55 or older but our ages span from 57 to 93 years old.”

Travel costs are reimbursed for the seniors but it ultimately costs the schools nothing because it is a volunteer program, Barnaby said.

“It’s a win-win scenario,” Barnaby said. “It benefits schools, seniors and children.”


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