A Golden Partnership
For nearly 50 years, GSEP’s Foster Grandparent Program has nurtured hearts and minds across generations
Raised by her grandmother in Watts, California, Shanetta Weatherspoon (EdD ’13) did not have a childhood lacking in love. But as one of nine children in the home, she didn’t always get all the individual attention she might have liked. Weatherspoon was blessed, however, with the presence of Ms. Wilson, a senior volunteer at her grade school, who acted as the school’s security guard and one-man pep rally.
What she best remembers about Wilson is her unceasing encouragement. “Her words, ‘You can do it’ and ‘You are better than your circumstances,’ were vital for me,” she says. “I never would have had the confidence to become Dr. Weatherspoon if I didn’t have someone like Ms. Wilson in my life.”
Weatherspoon is now the director of the Foster Grandparent Program sponsored by the Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and she clearly knows firsthand how important a loving, supportive senior can be to a young person.
The program was created by the federal government in 1965 and now has more than 400 sponsors like Pepperdine nationwide. Through it, senior volunteers provide extra support for children with special physical or developmental needs or those facing challenging circumstances such as homelessness and poverty. Pepperdine’s “branch” of the program started 48 years ago, and it partners with local schools and organizations that could use mentors and classroom assistants. The University also recruits and trains seniors to serve in these highly impactful positions.
Pepperdine's program was recognized in 2019 by the National Association of Counties with its Achievement Award for volunteerism. The award will provide GSEP with greater resources for volunteer training, enhancing its volunteers’ responsiveness to kids with difficult home lives.
Today each one of Pepperdine’s 164 federal grant-funded volunteer positions is filled, and while the volunteers receive a small stipend for their time, Weatherspoon is clear that the money “isn’t enough to keep anyone here.”
What keeps the foster grandparents involved are the depth of the connections they make and the sense of purpose they derive from their work. That sense of purpose is at the core of every volunteer’s experience. Frank, a former foster grandfather said as he battled cancer, “I have to be with the kids. They are helping me continue to fight, to overcome chemo.” And Lillie, a foster grandmother who has lost three of her children to gang violence and accidents, finds comfort in nurturing the kids she spends time with every day.
“One study said that loneliness was the leading cause of death for people 65 and over,” notes Weatherspoon. And while the program is designed to help children, “it’s about supporting and engaging our seniors as well because they’re just as important."
In 2022 the Foster Grandparent Program at Pepperdine will celebrate its golden anniversary, marking 50 years of transformational partnership. Witherspoon believes Pepperdine is the perfect place for a project that forges relationships between children and seniors. “The mission of the University is to build lives for purpose, service, and leadership,” she says. “And that’s exactly what our volunteers are doing every single day.”