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Exciting changes in store for Charles City Foster Grandparents program

By Kelly Terpstra, kterpstra@charlescitypress.com

Sarah Merrifield wants to know your name.

Her memorization skills have gotten to be pretty good over the relatively short amount of time she’s been the new director for the Charles City Foster Grandparents program.

“I think my biggest accomplishment is I know everyone’s name,” said Merrifield. “I know all of their names now and I won’t call them the wrong names when I see them.”

Merrifield – who took over for longtime director Mary Litterer last June – is starting to feel more at ease at her job facilitating grandparents that have helped shape young lives in northern Iowa for 47 years now.

“Overall it’s going really well. It was a challenge in the beginning but I feel that I’ve acclimated really well to the position,” said Merrifield. “I’m starting to enjoy the challenge.”

Charles City is the longest running foster grandparents program in the state of Iowa. Merrifield oversees four counties — Floyd, Chickasaw, Mitchell and Cerro Gordo.

Merrifield said she has about 56 volunteers or what are called “floats.” Foster Grandparents volunteer their time to help youngsters onsite who might be struggling in areas like spelling, reading or social skills.

“We have openings almost in every single county. Once you start it, you’ll love it,” she said.

Merrifield said she wants to increase her number of volunteers by about 10 to serve kids in day care to middle school and help with what she considers a very rewarding experience for young and old alike.

“It is an exciting time because there’s a lot of new stuff we can do,” she said.

Volunteers need to be at least 55 years of age. They previously were required to donate at least 15 hours of their time weekly, but now that has been reduced to just five hours.

“Even though we’d prefer them to work at least 15, if someone has a conflict and it doesn’t work, we would accept them doing five. With the hope that once they start doing it they start to realize how fun it is, they love it and maybe they’ll do more,” said Merrifield.

One of Merrifield’s goals is to get a site up and running in the Nashua elementary school.

“I want to form a relationship with them so maybe we can have some grandmas once again in their site. That’s just one of my goals to cover all of Chickasaw County,” said Merrifield, a 2004 Charles City High School graduate.

The Charles City program serves 22 mostly grade school and day care sites in Charles City, Clear Lake, Marble Rock, Mason City, Nashua, New Hampton, Nora Springs, Osage, Rockford, Rudd and St. Ansgar.

“Foster Grandparents are kind of like a right-hand man to a teacher sometimes because they can provide the individual attention that a teacher might not have to do,” said Merrifield.

The Charles City program has a new logo and Merrifield is also happy that other changes are on the horizon as well. She’s also going to publicize the program with a marketing campaign.

“We just want people to be more aware of what we are,” she said.

That awareness includes meet-and-greets with grandparents as well as maybe some bingo nights.

“I honestly see this upcoming year, I’m going to start doing more changes that I feel would benefit the program. So it’s more my program under my leadership,” said Merrifield.

Merrifield also wants to start doing more hands-on training and networking with local businesses. Charles City has been the foster grandparents program’s sponsor for more than 27 years, according to Merrifield.

This Tuesday will be the foster grandparents appreciation day. This year’s theme is a spring fling. Merrifield said there will be a candy bar, amazing beef sandwiches provided by Kathy Crooks, as well as musical entertainment. Annual awards will also be handed out.

Evelyn Schmidt is Charles City’s longest-serving volunteer. Schmidt, who is 94 years young, has been with the foster grandparents program for 29 years. She helps mentor and tutor kids at the St. John Lutheran Preschool in Charles City.

Colleen Ortmayer has been the coordinator/office assistant for the program in Charles City for 14 years – the same amount of time that Jean Boley, field coordinator, has been affiliated with the program.

Ortmayer and Boley offer Merrifield stability, knowledge and experience to help the program continue to keep improving lives and impacting surrounding counties in a positive way.

Ortmayer said she thinks Merrifield has done a good job at adjusting to her position.

“Everybody has a different way of doing things. Sarah is doing a great job. She’s working real hard at it to try and figure out grants and all that fun stuff,” said Ortmayer.

Ortmayer started out as a foster grandparent before she became an integral hire on the Charles City program’s staff. She’s seen what the program can do for everyone involved.

“Maybe they just need to talk that day or say, ‘Grandma, I had a bad day,’” said Ortmayer. “It gives them a reason to get up and get moving in the morning. They need that.”

Ortmayer talked briefly about some of the communities where foster grandparents is disappearing or dwindling in its number of “floats.”

“We’re still one one of the bigger ones. We’re really losing them – badly. It’s really sad,” said Ortmayer.

Volunteers work in schools with students in reading, spelling, math and, for some, providing a stable adult in their lives.

But it’s so much more than that, Ortmayer said.

“There’s someplace safe they can go and talk and grandma will give them a hug. They know they’re loved,” said Ortmayer. “Just little things that we take for granted. They mean so much to these little kids.”

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