FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Navajo foster grandparents volunteer at a rate higher
than their non-Indian counterparts. The Navajo Nation recognized their
kindness at an awards ceremony in Flagstaff, Ariz. on May 26.
"Thank you for volunteering. You really deserve this respect and we are all
very proud of you," said Anslem Roanhorse Jr., executive director of the
Navajo Division of Health, who addressed 195 elders who volunteered more
than 150,000 hours this past year. The recognition ceremony is an annual
event. "You truly are the fabric of our nation," added U.S. Rep. Rick
Renzi, R-Ariz., a guest speaker.
The Navajo Foster Grandparents program, a program under the Navajo Area
Agency on Aging office within the Navajo Division of Health, is one of only
four programs within the state of Arizona, but with a volunteer rate that
is 3 - 4 times higher than the other Arizona projects.
The program falls under the Senior Corp program of Corporation for National
Service, a federally funded national program with 30,000 volunteers
throughout the U.S. Participants work 20 hours a week at $2.65 an hour. The
Navajo Nation joined the program in 1971, but the program initially began
in the mid-1960s under the ACTION program.
"The Navajo Nation Foster Grandparents program is a model program in Indian
country," said Lenny Teh, a program official with the Save the Children
Carole Mandino, who has spent 20 years working with senior volunteers
throughout northern Arizona, believes the high volunteer rate on Navajo is
because they signed on when the project was in its infancy. "It is [now]
entrenched in Navajo culture," said Mandino, senior program coordinator for
Northern Arizona University's Gerontology Institute. "There have been so
many generations of volunteers on Navajo that it has become part of the
She said elders are respected on Navajo. "They have a better relationship
with children than off-reservation people. They are the knowledge of the
people and are an untapped resource," said Mandino, who oversees 47 foster
grandparents in three counties.
There's an estimated 20,000 tribal members age 60 and older across the
Navajo elders said they enjoy volunteering because it makes them feel good.
"When I go into a cafeteria, they are all shouting, 'Grandma! Grandma!'
said Laura Desh, 64, a foster grandparent. "It is a good feeling ...
Everybody then turns around and looks. They're like baby lambs crying out."
Irene Eldridge, program director, said her staff works with local schools
and HeadStarts to place grandparents in the community. At their site, they
teach the kids, one-on-one, the Navajo language and culture and help with
reading, and even adjusting to school life. "Last year, a state official
recognized that some children even had improved their reading skills with
the help of the grandparents," she said.
A common concern among foster grandparents is the loss of the Navajo
language and culture. "Today's kids are losing their culture and language,"
added Irene Franklin, another foster grandparent. "When we first meet them
[kids] we tell them who they are and where they come from. Some are slow
and some don't want to listen. They are all different."
Eldridge said the foster grandparents make a big difference by mentoring
and teaching Navajo culture to the kids. "All of them are very concerned
about the loss of our language and culture," she said. "This is why many of
them sign up to volunteer."
It's common for some volunteers to have stayed with the program for 15 - 30
years, said Victoria Bahe, program staff with the Fort Defiance office. In
recent years however, officials said recruiting has become harder, because
the stipend is not enough in these days of rising gas prices. They are
hoping for more funding than the $558,489 received by the Corporation for
National Service. The Navajo Nation then kicks in $200,000, and the state
of New Mexico helps with $99,392. Arizona provides no financial support.