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Sharing the Wisdom of Their Years - Foster Grandparent Program in 35th Year
"Grandma" Marge helps a student get ready to
paint as part of SASD's Foster Grandparent
Program at Grant Elementary. Photo by
Bruce Halmo/The Sheboygan Press

Marge Ruppel has 24 grandkids - and only one of them biological.

"Welcome to my little corner of the world," the 76-year-old said from her seat in a kindergarten classroom at Grant Elementary School as she pushed aside the folders she was stuffing.

Ruppel spends 18 hours a week in that room. She sits in the back to help students who need extra time on worksheets, and runs through flashcards to teach students their numbers or letters. She keeps a list of kindergartners who need more practice to count to 100.

All the students - and even the 46-year-old teacher - call her Grandma.

Ruppel is one of 36 volunteers in the Foster Grandparent Program, which celebrates 35 years in Sheboygan elementary schools this year.

As part of the nationwide program, senior citizens regularly head into district classrooms to bond with the students, help them through class work and provide an extra set of adult ears. They earn a small stipend from federal money for their work.

Often, the students adopt their classroom's volunteer as a pseudo grandparent, said Barb Horneck, program director. "That's the beauty for the grandparent. They get to share their love and wisdom," she said. "And that's your grandma for life."

Shawn Starck, the kindergarten teacher, considers her classroom's foster grandparent - Ruppel - somewhere between a pseudo grandparent and a classroom assistant. She attributes much of the academic and emotional success of her 5- and 6-year-old students to their foster grandmother.

"It just helps me complete my room," Starck said. "She's an extra ear and helping hands (and) the kids really relate to her."

Ruppel - a kind but firm white-haired woman who always wears skirts - joined the program 12 years ago, shortly after she retired as a nursing assistant and around the time her husband died. "It's just that we know we can help somebody yet, (and) you help some of these kids," she said.

The students approach her as comfortably as they would their biological grandparent.

One student told Ruppel that his mother's birthday was coming up. She brought in several cards for him to choose from so he could give his mother a birthday card.

Another student joins her "Grandma Marge" in the back of the classroom for solo reading time because she whizzes through kindergarten books too easily.

"It's fun … because then if there's a hard word, she can help me out with it," she said.

Sometimes, Ruppel just sits back and fields questions from the inquisitive kids: Do you have a grandpa at home? Do you live in a senior center? Can I touch your hair?

"It keeps your mind really active," she said. "You've got to think up some good answers sometimes."

Ruppel laments the changes she's seen in children over the years: more come from single-family homes, have shorter attention spans and face tight budget crunches. "They've got so much on their little minds now," she said.

But she also relishes working with the little girl whose reading level is advanced by three years and softly says "Oh, that's my boy," when a smaller child walks through the door.

Ruppel, who hopes to continue volunteering as long as her health allows, still recalls the names and home lives of "grandchildren" she met years ago.

"You always remember some of them," she said. "There's a couple I thought maybe I did a little something with. … It's been a ride."

Sheboygan Press Article - Kate McGinty

Sheboygan Area School District Press Release
April 20, 2009