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Online Storytime Is Helping Volunteer Grandparents Stay Connected During The Pandemic

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Photo: South Florida Institute on Aging

The SoFIA – South Florida Institute On Aging – has adapted its foster grandparent program to go virtual with weekly ‘Reading With Grandma’ videos.

We keep hearing from health experts that social distancing is really about physical distancing from others — and that we need to keep checking in with loved ones during the pandemic because a lot of people are feeling more lonely.

This is affecting seniors more than others — and Broward County already had a growing population of seniors facing isolation, before the pandemic hit.

Yet, there are some creative ways people are working to combat senior isolation right now.

They involve the power of a good storybook.

Marion Stincer looks comfortable in front of a camera. She sits in a big orange chair and opens the first page of the children’s book and looks right into the camera lens.

“Today I will read ‘My Very Big Little World’ by Peter Reynolds,” she says. “My name is Sugarloaf! I didn’t name myself my mom and dad did…”

She takes a pause to flash each colorful page to the camera.

“Here’s Sugarloaf…”

For story time, she’s Grandma Marion. She’s a volunteer Grandma with the SoFIA – the South Florida Institute on Aging.

Every day last year, she would go read stories to first graders at Fairway Elementary School in Miramar as part of a foster grandparent program.

“When the pandemic hit I cannot tell you how much I missed my class,” Stincer said.

Now, Grandma Marion is one of the volunteers helping make a new online video series with the SoFIA — called ‘Reading With Grandma.’

They’re adapting the ‘foster grandparent’ program to keep kids connected, at least virtually, to their adopted grandmas from school. They release a new video every week.

“…just like I would read to them in class,” Stincer said.

The online story time is something Jessica Carrasco and her 8 year-old nephew, Amir, in Tamarac, look forward to watching together.

“At first he was like, ‘Oh, what’s this?'” Carrasco said. “When it’s something new that we have to introduce to him, it can take a little time to get him to enjoy it. But after a while we told him, ‘Hey, we’re gonna read a book but you’re not the one reading it’ — he started enjoying it.”

Especially because Amir doesn’t always love reading. Carrasco heard about the videos from her own mom and said they’ve really helped during the pandemic.

“He is on the [autism] spectrum, so you know, we definitely have him on a certain routine. Especially now with everything being virtual we just had to change his routine around a little bit,” Carrasco said about Amir. “If there’s any way that we can make it as fun and enjoyable for him, we definitely try to do that.”

As for Grandma Marion, she says her days aren’t as active as they were before the pandemic.

“You know, I read a lot. I’m on the computer a lot. I stay in touch with my neighbors. They stay in touch with me,” Stincer said. “And when I’m home, that’s basically it.”

Cresha Reid, the senior director for the foster grandparent program at the SoFIA, is the one helping get the volunteer grandmas ready for their close ups.

“They want something to do, they want something fulfilling and to be rewarding but they also want to use their experience in order to impart to the next generation,” she said. “And they’re also learning from the students, too.”

Loneliness and isolation were already a big problem for a lot of senior citizens — the pandemic has made it worse.

2018 report called the Silver Tsunami outlined a grim reality for many seniors’ quality of life in Broward County. Without reliable public transportation, plus the high cost of living for people on fixed incomes, people have been growing more isolated, alone at home.

Last spring, after schools moved to distance learning, Reid said she knew the SoFIA had to reach out to its grandmas, just like they would after a hurricane:

“We make sure that we do calls to make sure that they’re OK, providing them with resources through our community partners,” Reid said.

“I find that very comforting, you know, that there’s somebody out there concerned,” Stincer said of Reid’s calls. “Sometimes I get very bored at home.”

At 75 years young, Grandma Marion has grandchildren of her own, but one’s starting college, and the other one just graduated.

“So, no little ones…”

She first started visiting her first grade class last year, after she had retired from being a paralegal.

With Broward schools looking to go back in person on Oct. 5, she said she is looking forward to going back, but just not right away.

Even if the volunteer grandparents don’t feel comfortable or can’t go back to their classrooms in person just yet, the foster grandparent program is looking to do more online.

The SoFIA is coordinating with schools to offer a virtual tutoring program. The institute hopes to be able to send volunteers back to schools once or twice a week when hybrid learning begins.

Stincer said it’s the teaching aspect of the program she is looking forward to getting back to when it’s safe to do so.

“It’s so self-rewarding,” she said. “Maybe I missed my calling.”

If you’d like to listen to this story, click on the clip at the top of the page.

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Danielle Prieur

About Danielle Prieur

Reporter & Fill-in Host

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter at WMFE. You can hear her reporting on a daily basis on the station. She also fills-in as a host during the morning and afternoon drive times. Her reporting has been featured on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and Vox. Danielle is originally from Rochester Hills, ... Read Full Bio »