Foster grandparents embrace remote learning

MEOC AmeriCorps Seniors Director Brandi Barnette with new tablets

Faced with continuing COVID-19 restrictions, MEOC AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers are using technology to stay connected to the program and each other, attend virtual workshops and even participate in activities to improve their well-being.

The MEOC program (formerly the Foster Grandparent Program) purchased 18 new tablets using the bulk of a one-time $15,000 augmentation grant from AmeriCorps. The funding was made available to help AmeriCorps Seniors programs address challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The remainder of MEOC’s grant was used to buy $100 Food City gift cards for each of the program’s 28 volunteers to replace the value of meals they are missing by not being able to work in classrooms. The program has also earmarked $1,000 of the grant for marketing expenses.

AmeriCorps Seniors participants serve as foster grandparents to at-risk children in area Head Start and elementary schools, working one-on-one to mentor and tutor students. The program was the Foster Grandparent Program.

Because of pandemic restrictions, the volunteers have been unable to physically volunteer in classrooms.

MEOC AmeriCorps Seniors Director Brandi Barnette has found other ways for the volunteers to serve the community, such as assembling packets for remote learners and helping with a local Thanksgiving meal outreach.

Now, however, the tablets provide new ways for AmeriCorps Seniors to stay connected and learn new technology. They can participate in virtual meetings and training. The tablets would even allow them to interact with their classrooms with school approval. The technology helps volunteers battle the isolation that many older adults have experienced since the pandemic.

Because the program has 18 tablets and 28 volunteers, the devices will be checked out for a set period, similar to a library system.

The foster grandparents have been trained on how to use the tablets, and Barnette is thrilled with their embracement of the technology.  “After the very first Zoom meeting, all of the participants were so happy, and many said they did not feel as nervous about trying this new technology. In fact, one of our volunteers felt confident enough to go online and pay a bill, all by herself, for the very first time!” Barnette said.

Their first group activity with the tablets is happening throughout March. The AmeriCorps Seniors are taking MEOC’s A Matter of Balance workshop, which is being taught virtually for the first time.

Master trainers Nikki Fleenor and Carol Schoolcraft will lead the classes on Mondays and Fridays for a total of nine sessions from the MEOC Transit conference room. Volunteers use Zoom to watch the classes and participate.

A Matter of Balance, open to adults age 60 and older, teaches practical strategies to reduce fear of falling and increase activity levels.

In April, the volunteers will participate in a three-part Understanding Cancer workshop offered by MEOC’s Mountain Laurel Cancer Support and Resource Center.  The AmeriCorps Seniors program has partnered with other agencies including Clinch River Health Services for a Diabetes & Hypertension Prevention & Education course, the American Red Cross for an adult preparedness training and Mental Health Association of East Tennessee for mental health training.

Barnette said although the volunteers would rather be serving in their schools, this opportunity to learn new technology and improve mental and physical health during the pandemic is a great way to help prepare them for their return. “I am excited to see the opportunities this new technology will bring to them. I believe it will help our volunteers relate more to the children who have been remote learners for the year and encourage them (volunteers) to overcome the fear of technology,” Barnette stated.

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

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