Our series A More Perfect Union aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. Millions of students across the country will return to school this week after the holidays. So we're looking at a program that brings a special kind of love and encouragement into classrooms that need it.
As the day begins at Excel Public School in southeast Washington, there are a few mature faces among the young girls rushing to class. Wearing blue aprons and serving up hugs are six foster grandmothers working alongside the school's teachers to help students succeed, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford. At the school and thousands of other locations across the country, more than 20,000 seniors are volunteering every day as foster grandparents.
Inside Dr. Smith's first grade class is grandma Margie Dixon.
"It gives me a lot of energy just to be with them," Dixon said.
Principal Tania Pritchard said she'd love a grandparent in every classroom.
"Our grandmothers live in the communities, so they see our young ladies at the grocery store on the buses. And so the girls when they're at home and in their communities and with their families, they can see a part of school," Pritchard said.
For grandmas Dixon, Wanda Brookings and Maureen Brooks, the word that best describes their experience is joy.
"It's a joy to get up every morning knowing that a smile and a hug is waiting for me. Who wouldn't want to get up and get that," Brookings said. "They need Me and I need them each and every day.
The program is open only to seniors earning less than twice the federal poverty level and nationwide the Corporation for National and Community Service helps more than 150,000 young people work with 22,000 foster grandparents in nearly every state.
"The most important factor to move people into self-sufficiency is education," said Cheryl Christmas, who runs the D.C. program, one of the largest in the country.
"We try to match individuals in areas and in schools in early childhood that people are struggling," Christmas said. "The kids benefit from the social-emotional connection… And then for the grandparents, they too are learning."
Seniors get help with everything from wills to annual physicals. A recent study found that nearly half of the program's volunteers report improved health after just one year – something Brooks has felt personally.
"[The doctor] told me to keep up the good work. My pressure down, blood pressure down. My weight is down. I just had my cataracts removed. They're fine. I said, I've got to see my babies," Maureen said.
But for these grandmothers, the program's most valuable benefit is in the classroom.
"Love. It don't cost anything," Brookings said.
"I had one little girl to tell me she said, 'Do you know how much I love you?' You know how you turned your eyes because you have tears. I said, 'You just don't know how much I love you today, baby,'" Dixon said.
"But you're getting emotional about this," Crawford said.
"You see so many children they don't get the love they have no idea what love is about. And to me to share my love, that that could take them a long ways," Dixon said.
The grandparents do get a small stipend, but the value goes far beyond money for them. In Washington, there's a waiting list of a hundred seniors hoping to get involved. The only hurdle is more funding for the program.
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