The Foster Grandparent program helps both kids and seniors

If grandmotherly affection could be packaged, it’d end up in a spritely 5-foot 1-inch package labeled Jane Schneider.

Schneider is 75 years old, but she still goes to school every day as part of the federal Foster Grandparent Program. Established 50 years ago by President Lyndon Johnson, the program was designed to help reduce isolation among the nation’s senior citizens by providing them a small stipend in exchange for volunteering between 20 and 40 hours a week.

But the stipend -- $2.65 an hour for 20 hours a week -- isn’t why Schneider shows up every day at North Smyrna Elementary School.

The woman known to everyone as “MeMom” does it for love: it’s a chance to help low-income kids and those with some sort of learning disability keep up with their peers.

“I get a real big satisfaction when I see kids are catching on to what we’re teaching them,” she said.

Schneider spends four hours each school morning in Diane Marthaler’s third-grade class, working with individual children who may have trouble understanding some of the lessons they’re being taught.

They’ve known each other for about 15 years and have worked off and on together for much of that time.

“She really helps me with the kids in the classroom,” Marthaler said. “Her being here really helps me differentiate my instruction because the kids have another adult to work with.”

Schneider admits she never envisioned working in a schoolroom. For most of her life, she was a stay at home mom, raising four children and eventually becoming grandmother to eight and great-grandmother to eight more.

When not at North Smyrna, she volunteers at church, the local Boys and Girls Club and elsewhere, still finding time to prepare full Sunday meals for around 10 to 15 family members in the Townsend home she shares with her husband, Roger.

Funny but serious

Schneider credits her hardiness and surfeit of energy to an early life on a West Virginia farm. She and her eight siblings were up at 4:30 every morning to do their chores before walking more than a mile down a dirt road to catch the school bus.

After high school, she worked in Washington D.C., where she met Roger, a Delaware native who was attending carpentry school. They moved to Claymont in 1966 and Smyrna a decade later.

When Roger was injured in a job accident, she went to work in Newark but had to leave a few years later after suffering a minor stroke. After that Schneider started full time babysitting for her growing brood of grandchildren.

She learned about the Foster Grandparent Program in 2002 when a friend noted that since she enjoyed volunteering, she should get paid for her efforts.

In her 15 years on the job, Schneider has mentored hundreds of kids who have graduated and gone on to careers and college.

And all of them --including a Naval Academy graduate --still call her MeMom. The brother of one student who died of cancer still visits, she said.

The kids' affection for Schneider is obvious.

Even though she paid a special, late-day visit to Marthaler’s classroom for this story, she was greeted with hugs and smiles.

“MeMom’s a hard-working woman and she likes to help people,” third-grader Shane Dixon offered. “She never gives up. MeMom likes everyone, even if they’re different.”

And she’s very funny, too, added classmate Xavier Moscrip, although if needed she can be very serious, too.

“That’s for sure,” Xavier said. “Like if someone doesn’t bring in their homework, she’s like, ‘Well, you’re going to have to do it during recess.’”

For her work at the school and elsewhere, Schneider was recognized in 2013 by the Delaware Association of American Mothers with its Mother of Achievement Award.

‘Never going to quit’

Daniel Young, who heads the Foster Grandparent Program in Kent County, said the agency needs more people like Schneider.

“They help address social and emotional needs of every child in this program,” he said. “Because of their age and life experiences, they enhance the kids’ ability to be successful,” he said. “Sometimes they’re the only ones who show the kids that they’re loved.”

Statewide there are about 205 foster grandparents who put in almost 199,000 hours in 2016, he said. He’s  always looking for more volunteers, especially men, to take up the program.

Only about 5 percent of foster grandparents are men, Young said.

“They add another component,” he said. “They’re a father or grandfather figure, someone who can talk about sports, baseball, fishing, and cars.”

As for Schneider, she has no plans to quit. After 15 years, she still drives a 20-year-old Oldsmobile station wagon to school and back home every day, arriving to begin class at 8 a.m. She walks briskly down the school’s long hallways to and from class, greeting children as they pass by.

She dismisses both her years and a recent bout with cancer -- she’s fully recovered -- as excuses to slow down and maybe take it easy.

“I plan to work as a foster grandmother until they kick me out of here or until I’m six feet under,” she said. “I’m never going to retire.”