Jessie Huitink, program director

Director Jessie Huitink explains the reach of the Foster Grandparent Program in N’West Iowa at the programs’ headquarters in Rock Valley.

ROCK VALLEY—Growing up two doors down from her grandparents, Jessie Huitink always knew the importance of learning from and loving older generations.

As director of the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Programs of Greater Siouxland based in Rock Valley since December, Huitink focuses on getting senior citizens volunteering in their communities after retirement.

Foster grandparent are volunteers serve as mentors to children by helping in the classrooms, Head Start centers and day cares. They serve as role models and help children who may be struggling or just need some extra one-on-one time.

Senior companions provide support, assistance and friendships to adults 21 years and older to help them in their daily life.

The National Institute on Aging has listed social engagement as a way to keep the brain strong. More than 5.5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease. Programs like foster grandparents and senior companions provide a vital defense, Huitink said.

Her own grandparents volunteer at a local elementary school.

“People who don’t have something to do after they’ve retired, we see they’re deteriorating mentally,” Huitink said. “They have so much wisdom to share, and if you don’t absorb that, it disappears.”

Senior volunteers share their time, whether that it is roasting marshmallows with their senior companion clients over a weekend or helping second-grade students with summer reading programs.

Huitink quotes a common refrain among the volunteers: “These aren’t my clients, these are my friends.”

Snow blanketed the streets of Hawarden last winter. But one of the senior companions had to get his friend to the hair salon. Driving through the thick snow, they arrived to find the generator did not have enough gas to fuel the hair dryers. Hours went by until the companion called the office.

“He says, ‘It’s OK! We’ve got gas.’ We were all in an uproar of laughter,” Huitink said.

From her first job at Heritage House nursing home in Orange City to directing group homes for adults with disability, Huitink has been dedicated to serving the community, sacrificing time she could spend with husband, Eric.

Back in September, she moved out of group home work and applied to direct the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Programs.

Barb Gerling, the program development coordinator, said Huitink has brought new motivation to the office. On the wall across from her desk hangs a map of all the foster grandparents. Red yarn connects Polaroid pictures of each grandpa or grandma with their corresponding county on the map. Volunteers serve at schools like Rock Valley Christian, George-Little Rock Elementary, and Sibley-Ocheyedan Elementary.

“I’ve got the best job ever,” said Gerling, who is in her 13th year working with the programs. “If I ever need a hug, I’ve always got a grandma.”

But even the best job has its challenges. Recently, background checks were standardized for programs across the country. All volunteers had to be rechecked and refingerprinted. Many of the long-term volunteers felt they were not being trusted.

“It was frustrating for some places because they had sites where they couldn’t get people in,” Huitink said. “There were stairs and people with walkers. There was no way they were going to get up to that fingerprinting machine on the third floor. No elevator. Ridiculous.”

However, the biggest challenge remains more abstract than elevators and walkers.

“The hardest part is people would really benefit from these programs are the ones that are saying, ‘I don’t need help.’” Huitink said. “People are so proud of their independence that they sometimes refuse to admit that, you know, sometimes you just need a friend.”

Editor’s note: Suzannah Guthmann of Waxhaw, NC, will be a senior at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA. She wrote this story while participating in the World Journalism Institute May 16-June 1 hosted by Dordt University in Sioux Center.