AmeriCorps Seniors find ways to help communities despite restrictions

Unable to serve in area classrooms during the pandemic, MEOC AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers have found other ways to assist their communities.

The volunteers serve as foster grandparents to at-risk children in area Head Start and elementary schools, working one-on-one to mentor and tutor students. When pandemic restrictions began to emerge and schools shifted to virtual learning, the seniors found themselves isolated at home with lots of time on their hands. MEOC AmeriCorps Seniors Director Brandi Barnette began seeking partnerships and opportunities to keep volunteers engaged long distance.

During the past summer, MEOC AmeriCorps Seniors collaborated with Empowering the Ages: Sharing Smiles, which paired the grandparents with a young pen pal. Sharing Smiles’ goal was to decrease isolation during the pandemic. Letters were exchanged by email weekly, and many friendships were formed among the foster grandparents and youth.

“This opportunity was unique and offered an intergenerational experience while many of our grandparents were stuck at home. The pen pals shared recipes, pictures, stories, poems and friendships to encourage each other through the beginning months of the pandemic,” said Barnette. Some seniors continue to write their pen pals.

When schools reopened in the fall, the foster grandparents were unable to return to service in their classrooms due to continuing pandemic restrictions.

“For the safety of the seniors and staff at the schools, we were restricted from serving physically in the schools. It was very discouraging but understandable, so we had to be creative in how we could continue to serve and engage our volunteers,” Barnette said.

One foster grandparent was tasked with hand stitching simple storybooks for a Kids Central, Inc. toddler classroom.

Linda Boggs has long volunteered in the infant/toddler classroom at Kids Central. When classroom teacher Sabrina Powers asked if she would help with a project at home, Boggs was eager to help. She crafted 12 hand-sewn books that required hours of tedious work.

Powers stated, “The books are amazing, and the kids love them!”

Other AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers have helped assemble packets or cut out material for remote learners. Volunteers put together over 200 health and activity bags that were distributed to Kids Central children in partnership with the family engagement specialist.

The volunteers formed partnerships outside the education system as well, assisting Oak Grove Church in Big Stone Gap with packing Christmas boxes for children.

As the months passed, it was clear this group had a heart for service. “We could see the fatigue the schools, staff and teachers were facing was increasing. The foster grandparents were used to meeting once a month for in-service. Due to COVID, we weren’t able to meet, so I thought we should try to think of a way to help on both sides,” said Barnette.

In October, Barnette sent out letters requesting donations for a Teacher Thank You bag project. “The idea was to make enough bags for all the staff at each school we serve – just to say thank you,” she said.

Barnette soon found this was no small feat, however. “We have 28 foster grandparents, and we volunteer in 21 different schools and Head Starts in Lee, Wise, Scott counties and Norton,” she said. When the number of staff was totaled, it was close to 1,000.

Barnette and her foster grandparents got to work. Over the course of a month, several small groups gathered to assemble the bags, the contents of which were mostly donated by local businesses and private donors. “Kindness and thankfulness are always free. We hoped these simple thank you bags would put a smile on the faces of those working so hard to care for the children in our communities,” said Barnette. The foster grandparents enjoyed fellowship together, albeit six feet apart and wearing a mask.
As the pandemic continues to impact area schools, the AmeriCorps Seniors program plans to embrace changes and is already discovering new ways to engage and impact the lives of children. Barnette plans to incorporate technology in the spring. The group also plans to complete a special project with Commonwealth Catholic Charities and the youth they serve.

“This program focuses on serving exceptional children, so we thought it would be a neat idea to create one or more quilts from squares colored by the children at Commonwealth Catholic Charities.” The goal is to raffle off the finished quilts and donate the money back to CCC to benefit the children.

Barnette stated, “Our volunteers are looking forward to being back in the schools serving the youth and helping the teachers, but until that day comes, we will continue to serve our communities and children any way we can.”

For more information about AmeriCorps Seniors, contact Barnette at brandi.barnette@meoc.org or (276) 523-4202.

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