Caring kupuna

LIHUE — Prisca Domingo always dreamed of one day becoming a school teacher while she was growing up in Koloa.

But the Kilauea resident never made it to college.

Instead, she attended Kauai Technical School and worked on one of the island’s plantations for 12 years, in the hotel industry for 19 years and for the County of Kauai for 19 more.

“Shortly before I retired from the county, I asked myself, ‘OK, what will I do when I retire?’” Domingo said. “There’s just so many things to do and plan for.”

That’s when, Domingo said, a friend introduced her to the Foster Grandparents program, a federally funded community service program that provides volunteers who are at least 55 years old with opportunities to work with children in schools to improve their physical, mental, emotional and social development skills.

“Working with the Foster Grandparent program put me where I wanted to be, since it was my life goal to become a school teacher,” said Domingo, who began volunteering in 2009 and has worked with children in Kilauea School’s Pre-Plus program, as wells as students in first, second and third grades. “I enjoy working with the kids — they keep me going and they keep my mind active.”

Domingo is one of nearly two dozen senior volunteers in preschool and elementary school classrooms on Kauai, who read to children, help them with class assignments and even offer some important life advice when the need arises.

Many of the volunteers say it is a unique experience that has changed their lives and taught them a few things along the way.

“Because of our name, people mistake us for grandparents fostering children,” Kauai Program Specialist Anne Miyamoto said. “We are in the schools working, ideally one on one with students.”

Starting up

The Foster Grandparents Program started in 1965 — two years after its federal government agency, the National Senior Corps, was established.

As one of the 21 original Foster Grandparents Program sites nationwide, the Hawaii program was based out of the Waimano Training School and Hospital in Pearl City on Oahu, where volunteers worked with patients and students in Waimano Home.

After the program was deinstitutionalized, volunteers started servicing children with special and exceptional needs in the public schools, Head Start preschools, private preschools and other youth-based facilities.

The program, however, did not make its way to Kauai until 1993 — one year after Hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai — when federal funds became available for projects and programs to aid in the community’s recovery efforts.

At that time, the program started with only four volunteers.

The Kauai program now has 22 volunteers, who work at six state Department of Education elementary schools, two charter schools, the Koa Keiki Head Start preschool, and the Kauai Economic Opportunity Early Learning Center.

These schools include Kapaa Elementary, Kekaha Elementary, Kilauea School, King Kaumualii Elementary, Koloa Elementary, Elise H. Wilcox Elementary, Kanuikapono Charter School, and Kawaikini New Century Public Charter School.

“A lot of the children have different home lives, and you can find the difference between the ones who do have help and the ones who are neglected and need help,” said Leonora Lizama, an 80-year-old volunteer from Hanamaulu who has worked with children at King Kaumualii Elementary School since 2011. “This is why I say that the job we do is very challenging, and if you help a child who really needs help, it’s rewarding to see the results.”

In 2014 alone, Foster Grandparent volunteers on Kauai logged 22,614 hours in classrooms and served about 100 students.

Wilcox Elementary School Principal Corey Nakamura said the school’s two Foster Grandparent volunteers support students in many areas.

“Some of them is helping students with behavior, while others is helping students with their academics, curriculum, writing, reading, and math,” Nakamura said. “It’s a very supportive program and we really do appreciate them, since they provide that extra hand in the classroom.”

‘It keeps me going’

Josephine Bandmann, an 86-year-old volunteer from Wailua Homesteads who works at Kapaa Elementary School, has been with the Foster Grandparent program since 1994 and has worked with children in special education programs for most of that time.

“I enjoy what I’m doing — it keeps your mind alert,” said Bandmann, who has 36 grandchildren, 48 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

“I’m a mother and I raised nine kids and I love children, so I guess that’s why the Lord has given me a lot of kids and grandkids,” Bandmann said with a laugh when asked how she balances her volunteer duties with her time with family. “It keeps me alert and I look forward to every day, and the children love me.”

Rogerlyn Kanealii, who has been a Foster Grandparents volunteer for the past six years, works with fourth graders at Kapaa Elementary.

“You actually learn a lot more from the children,” Kanealii said. “You learn the good, the bad, the ugly, the joyful and excitement because they have so many stories and they don’t realize that what they’re telling you will have that kind of effect on you as a grandparent. Some of them are so cute — you just want to hug them and not let them go.”

Working with a new generation of students does have its challenges at times.

“The children nowadays do not have a sense of self because they have too much modern technology — I’m not saying they’re lazy or anything, but unless it’s on the TV or on a game, this is what you do,” Kanealii said. “If you don’t have parents that spend time with you, what many of us find in the school is that many of them work two or three jobs, so it’s understandable. You cry for some of them because you wonder, or you know how, their parents were in school and their children are nowhere near where their parents were.”

Many of them, however, say they do not plan on slowing down any time soon.

“Some people ask me when I’m going to retire, and I say, ‘You know, as long as my legs can go, my hands can work, I’ll keep on going,’” Bandmann said. “Oh, and if I can drive, because at our age, they only give us two years to drive at a time.”

For more information on the Foster Grandparent program, contact Miyamoto at 241-3355.

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