Assunta and Wilbur Lane Brown had been married 56 years when Wilbur died seven years ago.
Assunta Brown didn’t know what to do with herself. She was retired, her three grown daughters lived out of state, and now she was alone.
After two years of witnessing her aunt’s pain and lingering aimlessness, Brown’s niece urged her to look into a national grandparent program that had an affiliate office in Fort Wayne. Brown called and volunteered, getting assigned to the before- and after-care program for a new school on Wells Street called Imagine MASTer Academy.
That was in 2007. Today, Brown, 84, is the beloved grandmother of the entire school, and everyone – students, parents and faculty – calls her Nana.
The foster grandparent is the best program ever, Brown said. It’s been a godsend. I get much more out of it than the kids do.
In Allen County, 70 active volunteers serve in the Foster Grandparent Program, said Jeanette DeVore, program director. They are paid a tax-free stipend of $2.65 an hour, which is made possible through a grant from the Corporation for National & Community Service, a nationwide agency.
Nationwide, about 29,000 foster grandparents participate in 330 programs. Fort Wayne’s program is one of the oldest, formed in 1965, DeVore said.
Assunta Brown is our oldest volunteer, DeVore said.
In addition to her daughters, Brown has four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She was a longtime stay-at-home mom before going to work at the state unemployment office, where she stayed for 17 years before retiring.
Now she is working five days a week when school is in session, from 2 to 6 p.m. daily. Brown assists the five staff members who watch more than 100 students registered in the school’s before- and after-school care programs.
But Brown doesn’t just sit and watch the children. She teaches some how to knit and crochet. One day she brought in fabric remnants, and some girls wrapped themselves in the fabric and paraded around the room. The girls clamored for more. They wanted to know how to create clothing.
A talented seamstress, Brown brought in her sewing machine and showed step by step how to sew. Then Brown brought in beads and string and they made jewelry.
They just loved it, Brown said.
What began as a bit of whimsy has evolved into a highly anticipated spring fashion show.
Since the students are prohibited from using needles (they are considered weapons), they use looms to crochet and knit and use fabric glue in place of needles and thread.
For the last fashion show, Brown visited second-hand stores and bought long dresses, instructing each student to redesign a dress to fit her personality or to reflect another culture or country.
Naomi Young, 11, has been in the after-care program since first grade – when she said Nana taught her to knit.
Naomi cut off the bottom of her dress and fashioned a headdress, then decorated the rest of the dress to reflect a traditional African theme she had in mind.
While Brown is waiting for school to let out and for the students to arrive, a mother brings in her 9-year-old daughter. Brown runs to the girl and they hug. The mother explains that her daughter misses Nana because she has not needed the after-school care for many months.
Sam Young, director of the before- and after-school program, athletics and safety at Imagine MASTer Academy and the father of Naomi, said Brown is a young 84 and truly dedicated to the students.
She even had a fire in her house and was upset that she could not be here, Young said. We are very excited to have her be part of our family.
Principal Jim Huth is equally delighted with Nana.
The most powerful way to teach is to put the wisdom and knowledge of senior citizens with our children, Huth said. She is able to teach them the traditions and experiences of the past, which many do not have access to.
Across town is another foster grandparent whom the staff at Union Baptist Church Child Care has come to rely on and adore.
As she entertains four or five toddlers with songs, patty-cake and baby chatter, Linda Lewis, 64, makes it obvious she loves children.
It’s been awesome having Linda, said the preschool’s administrator, Dee Chambers.
The child-care center is in a remodeled house adjacent to the church, and the garage has been converted to a learning center for about 24 children. When they started 10 years ago, they had nine children, Chambers said.
Lewis is crisp and chic in her pink and white flowered skirt and matching high heels – she walks the babies in those heels! Chambers says with astonishment – but that doesn’t stop Lewis from picking up a crying, drooling baby who wants to be held. She rocks the baby, singing softly into his ear until he calms down.
Lewis raised her own three children, along with four foster children, and now has 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
I just show them that I love them, Lewis said of how she cares for the children. Children just want to be loved and be shown that love.
Lewis comes in every weekday and serves as the afternoon grandma, while Mamie Barnes is the morning foster grandma.
After working years as the director of a child-care center, raising her own children and taking in foster children, Lewis appeared to be the perfect fit for the Foster Grandparent Program, or so her sister-in-law thought.
She called me and told me about it two years ago, Lewis said.
She volunteered right away and has been there ever since.
She brings that sage wisdom to the children and to other members of the staff, Chambers said of Lewis. We can all learn a lot from her stories of how they made it years ago and how they do it now.
The Foster Grandparent Program began nationwide in 1965, providing tutors and mentors to children and youth with special needs. About 29,000 volunteers have served more than 232,000 children, providing support in schools, hospitals, drug treatment centers, correctional institutions and child-care centers.
There’s so many like me who would like to be involved in some way, Brown said. It keeps you young and gives you a purpose to get up in the morning.