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Sarah Merrifield steps in as new director of Foster Grandparents

  • Foster Grandparent Field Coordinator Jean Boley (left), new director Sarah Merrifield (middle), and coordinator/office assistant Colleen Ortmayer (right) stand in front of the Foster Grandparents sign in Charles City on Thursday. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Foster Grandparent Field Coordinator Jean Boley (left), new director Sarah Merrifield (middle), and coordinator/office assistant Colleen Ortmayer (right) stand in front of the Foster Grandparents sign in Charles City on Thursday. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

By Kelly Terpstra, kterpstra@charlescitypress.com

There’s a new director in town and she’s a hometown woman.

The Foster Grandparents program in Charles City — representing four counties in northern Iowa — has known no other director the past 20 years than longtime leader Mary Litterer.

Litterer officially retires on July 20, but she’s already given that leadership role over to Sarah Merrifield, a 2004 Charles City High School graduate.

Merrifield’s first day as director of Foster Grandparents was June 18. Even though Merrifield is new to the job, she knows she’s in capable hands.

“Mary’s been a fantastic mentor. Mary did such great work and was such a strong presence,” said Merrifield. “I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Litterer is currently on vacation and her last days working with Foster Grandparents will be next week. Litterer has shown Merrifield the ropes during her first two weeks on the job, then she’s on her own.

“I’ll get one more week to work with her before she kind of sets me loose,” said Merrifield.

Merrifield said everyone at Foster Grandparents has been very welcoming and accepting. She says she plans on keeping the program pretty similar to how it functions now. A large part of Merrifield’s first year will be meeting new people and hearing their stories.

“I would say for the first year quite a few things will stay the same until I understand the program in its entirety,” said Merrifield. “I have a lot to learn, not only from Colleen (Ortmayer) and Jean (Boley), but from the grandparents themselves.”

Merrifield graduated with a master’s degree in Family Consumer Sciences from Iowa State University. Her previous job was at the Iowa State University Extension Office in New Hampton, where she worked for three years. She was office manager at that branch in Chickasaw County.

Merrifield also worked for five years in Bremer County, working with the 4H program, as the Youth and Family Program coordinator for the Iowa State Extension Office located in Tripoli.

Merrifield, who grew up on a family farm here in Charles City, said she is happy to be back working with a program that has had such a lasting impact on old and young alike.

“I liked being in Charles City and that was a big draw to me, plus the factor of those two generations coming together,” said Merrifield.

Foster Grandparents volunteer their time to help youngsters onsite who might be struggling in areas like spelling, reading or improving social skills. There are 22 sites that Merrifield will oversee that span the counties of Floyd, Chickasaw, Cerro Gordo and Mitchell. Volunteers, or “floats” as they are called, must devote at least 15 hours a week, but no more than 40.

“It’s time well spent,” said Merrifield. “We always have more need than we have grandparents.”

Right now Merrifield has around 50 to 60 Foster Grandparents. Her goal is to get 13 more on board. She plans on getting the word out at senior centers and churches or any group that is willing to listen to what she has to say.

“They show a lot of love, that’s a big thing for them,” said Merrifield. “They’re putting an impression on these children. I think it’s a way for them to give back and it’s a way for them just to do something that means something to them.”

Merrifield posed this question to anyone who might be interested in putting on the traditional red coat of the Foster Grandparents and helping youths in need.

“It’s an experience of a lifetime. If you’re not volunteering somehow, what else would you be doing right now?,” said Merrifield. “Our doors are always open. We love to have people come in and talk.”

The Foster Grandparents program has been in existence in northern Iowa for almost 46 years. Charles City has sponsored the area program for the last 27 years.

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