Foster grandparent program in Great Falls struggles to adapt to pandemic

Posted at 7:13 PM, Sep 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-23 21:13:39-04

For the last decade, Frankie Christiansen — "Grandma Frankie," the kids call her — has spent at least eight hours a day at East Middle School in Great Falls. She helps teachers with all sorts of odds and ends, from helping students with their reading skills to serving as a mentor.

She's part of the Cascade County Foster Grandparent Program: a federally funded program for low-income seniors to care for children and youth with exceptional needs. Some Foster Grandparents work at daycares and faith-based sites, but most of them work in the school district. Although every Foster Grandparent receives a stipend, for Christiansen, it's so much more than a job — it's about the students.

"They're my life," she said.

In March, when the pandemic tightened its grip on Cascade County and Great Falls Public Schools transitioned to remote learning, Foster Grandparents could no longer work in the school district. Tina Lopez, the program director, said the decision was made out of an abundance of caution and in accordance with public health guidelines.

But it's been hard on Christiansen, who hasn't seen her students in months.

"I'm not used to this," she said. "I'm with my kids all the time, and I wonder how they're doing, what's become of them. It's just really, really hard for a grandparent."

Christiansen is one of over 30 Foster Grandparents in the program. Bev Harris, another Foster Grandparent who works at Lincoln and won Foster Grandparent of the Year in August, said although she misses her kids "a lot," going back can be a scary thought.

"There are several [Foster Grandparents] who have underlying health conditions that we do need to be extra cautious of," said Lopez.

She said she knows her staff in the school district is eager to see students again, but they wanted to wait until the school district developed a rhythm for cleaning and public health protocols before going back. Over a month into the school year, Lopez will meet with GFPS Assistant Superintendent Ruth Uecker next Wednesday to discuss whether Foster Grandparents can safely return.

Regardless of the outcome of the meeting, everyone recognizes that teachers need all the help they can get. "They know that the teachers need a lot of help and they want to be there to help them however they can," Lopez said.

Click here to learn more about the program, or call 406-454-6992.