When Joseph Aragon heads to school in the morning you won't find him toting a backpack stuffed with school supplies or carrying a lunchbox. Instead, this 64 year-old brings with him a lifetime of experience and knowledge to share with the students of Blanche Pope Elementary School on the Hawaiian Homestead land in Waimanalo.
An Oahu native for 30 years, Aragon returned to the island after a stint in the U.S. Army took him to the mainland. Back at home, he continued his career in service by becoming a forensic sketch artist for the Honolulu Police Department. But upon retirement, Aragon realized he wasn't done with service and became a Foster Grandparent with Senior Corps.
“I was so nervous on my first day since it was something new,” said Aragon on his first day jitters. A foster grandparent for over a year, he “can't imagine a life without the students at Blanche Pope.”
The Foster Grandparent Program began nationwide in 1965. It provides loving and experienced tutors and mentors aged 55+ to children and youth with special needs. Administered by the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 29,000 Foster Grandparents have provided support in schools, hospitals, drug treatment institutions, correctional facilities, and childcare centers. In Hawaii, more than 140 Foster Grandparents serve throughout the state.
Across the nation, school districts are facing budget cuts and Foster Grandparent volunteers have stepped in to provide crucial services that children might otherwise not receive by lending a helping hand to teachers and providing personalized attention to students.
“Uncle Joe,” as he prefers to be called, is the school's only male Foster Grandparent. Aragon has become a father figure to students in search of a role model. “It's nice to be there for the kids. I know some of their grandfathers from work and it is great to provide them with positive reinforcement and support in and out of the classroom.”
Aragon, like many Foster Grandparents, also brings an extra set of eyes and ears to the classroom, deterring bullying and resolving issues before they escalate. “We try to promote ‘the Hawaiian way' – respecting others for who they are and embracing diversity among one another,” said Aragon.
As a Foster Grandparent, Aragon has seen the successes of having a little extra help in the classroom. Last year, he worked with nine students with learning difficulties, using art as a way to get the students to express themselves.
“It's tremendous to see the progress in these kids who just needed an outlet to express themselves. They found that opportunity through art,” Aragon said. “Promoting creativity is important for students to channel their feelings and tell a story.”
Being a Foster Grandparent also benefits the volunteers who donate their time and attention. “My life has been devoted to serving others, be it in the military or on the police force. It doesn't just go away,” said Aragon. “I felt a need to serve and help others, and these kids have filled a void in my retired life. It's truly fulfilling and a win-win situation for everyone.”