Aging Today: Jumpstart literacy program a lifeline for one elder volunteer

April 2014 – The March-April 2014 issue of “Aging Today” features the story of Jumpstart 73-year-old Community Corps member Carleaner McKinney and how the program saved her, physically and emotionally.

Los Angeles, CA- Carleaner McKinney was deep into a depression following the death of her son, a security guard, who she says, “work, work, worked,” until four years ago when he had a fatal heart attack. McKinney, 73, admits she was getting out of bed around noon, eating, watching television, taking a nap, eating some more and repeating the process. Her daughter-in-law called frequently, concerned for her welfare, pointing out that McKinney was just perpetuating an unhealthy, unproductive cycle.

Her daughter- in-law works for a preschool run by PACE Early Childhood Education (ECE), and suggested her mother-in-law volunteer for the Jumpstart Foster Grandparent Program (which served a PACE ECE preschool where she works), in which elders work with preschool children on literacy to prepare them for kindergarten academics. It took persistent pushing to nudge McKinney out of her cycle, but her daughter-in-law stressed that as a mother four times over, with 23 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren, McKinney “knew children.” Finally McKinney agreed to talk to the people at Jumpstart, who insisted she would be great and needed to “think positive.” Now she has been volunteering for two years, four days a week, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

How Jumpstart Works
McKinney’s hometown of Los Angeles (Jumpstart Southern California) was the first Jumpstart chapter to be awarded a Foster Grandparent Program grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service. Jumpstart uses foster grandparents to implement a research-based language and literacy curriculum with economically disadvantaged preschool children to help them to be ready for kindergarten.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 55 foster grandparents mentored 182 preschool children. Of the 165 who attended the program for at least 120 days, 96 percent showed gains in language and literacy skills and 58 percent demonstrated gains on one or more developmental levels. “When the children come from Jumpstart they are able to go into kindergarten with the basic knowledge of names and ABCs. I tell them, ‘When you go to big school you’ll be prepared,’” says McKinney. She sees that the kids understand, that “they know when they leave they’ll have the knowledge they need, they won’t be behind other kids. They won’t get held back.”

Despite being an avid reader of most any genre, McKinney at first was worried she would fail at helping the children. “Reading for yourself is different than reading for the children, I was afraid they wouldn’t understand what I said, or I wouldn’t be reading right, or wouldn’t say the words right – I came up with all kinds of excuses,” she says. That’s where Jumpstart’s intensive training program comes in –training that McKinney realized could have helped her in preparing her own children for academic life, if only it had been available.

“They teach you how to interact with kids, how to be patient, how to be able to relate to the children. I really wish I had had that experience with mine. They would have come up a lot better, education-wise.” “They concentrate on the education, not on the behavior –on the children being able to write their names, know their ABCs. They speak of excelling,” she adds.

Nationwide, Jumpstart is excelling, its volunteers having logged more than 1 million hours of service to preschool children in low-income communities, and impacting 50,000 preschool children nationwide with support in language, literacy skills and social-emotional competencies.

Jumpstart Works for the Grandparents, Too
It’s tough to gauge how many kids McKinney has touched across the span of her volunteer effort with Jumpstart because she works with four kids on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and on Mondays and Wednesdays is assigned another four children, but also roams the classroom, helping countless kids with literacy issues and all sorts of other projects.

It’s not at all tough to gauge the impact the program has had on McKinney, however, as she readily and repeatedly states that although it may sound like hyperbole, Jumpstart saved her life. “I was spiraling down, I wasn’t doing anything except being depressed. I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t want to go to the psychiatrist because I thought if I did, I must be crazy,” McKinney says. “Jumpstart…gave me a reason to get up in the morning.”

It has also affected her physically. In 1986, McKinney had a heart attack, and in 1999 she had a stroke. But through her participation in Jumpstart, Senior Site Manager Christine Manley says “she has gone from using a walker, to a cane, to not needing any assistance!” “I’m a diabetic with kidney problems and walking issues, but as long as I keep moving I’m all right,” McKinney says. “It’s when I stop that I start to get worse. As long as I’m with Jumpstart, I have some focus, some drive to keep me alive.”

According to Jumpstart, 91 percent of foster grandparents indicate that their experience has enabled them to build leadership skills, and 100 percent reported feeling proud of their service. For McKinney it goes well beyond pride. She consistently talks about how good the children make her feel, saying, “Jumpstart gave me that back again, like I was worth something. And it’s very satisfying when [the kids] can make you think.” McKinney worked for 18 years for Goodwill Industries and in home health for another 10, so some might say she deserved the rest that retirement provided. But she says she would tell any retired elder to join Jumpstart and “get up and move it and do it!”

“It is very rewarding. When you see the children excelling and moving forward it makes you feel good. It gives you a focus,” says the woman who now hops out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to get to her kids.

View the article here.

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