Foster grandparent program connects the young with the young at heart

“What color do you want?”

“I want red.”

Sam Cetrano of Sanford helps a preschooler choose just the right colors for his painted handprint turkey, a Thanksgiving tradition.

“If you’re going to have different feathers, you might want different colors for the different feathers,” Cetrano advises.

Cetrano is among the members of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish in Sanford who are taking part in a foster grandparent program at St. Thomas School. Once a month, a group of older parishioners spends part of the morning in the school’s preschool classroom.

“We started last year when our granddaughter was in pre-K, and they asked who would be interested, and of course we said yes,” says Cetrano, who participates with his wife, Sharon. “When I grew up, I was lucky enough to have all four of my grandparents, and they were spectacular, and I wanted to be just like them. That is a gift in itself right there, to be able to grandparent children.”

“It was so enjoyable last year that we wanted to come back,” says Sharon. “Some of the children might not have older grandparents, so it’s nice to give them that.”

“I think children need that. I know that growing up, I had both sets of grandparents and looked up to them. I respected them. It helps them learn to interact with us,” says Sandy Jalbert, from Sanford, another foster grandparent.

Sessions start with a prayer or a song, which is followed by a craft project that the kids and foster grandparents do together. There is then free time for reading or playing with toys. The seniors who are more agile don’t hesitate to sit or even lie on the floor with the children.

“We have some seniors reading stories, playing with baby dolls, playing trucks. It’s just a nice opportunity to connect with each other,” says Ericka Sanborn, director of Marketing, Enrollment, and Legacy for St. Thomas School.
“You never know what they are going to say, and everything is fun. Whether you read a book or are playing with the LEGOs or you’re painting, everything is new and different and fun for them. They have such enthusiasm,” says Sharon.
“The excitement of the kids is contagious. Kids keep you young. We go home and talk about it and smile about all the funny things they do. It’s hysterical,” says Sam.

There are as many as 14 students in the school’s preschool program, depending on the day of the week, and with six to eight foster grandparents participating, it allows the children to get individualized attention during their time together.

“I think they like the one-on-one attention they get,” says Becky Southwick, a foster grandparent from Sanford. “I think they can relate to grandparents. I think we’re more relaxed, maybe more relaxed than a parent might be at certain points of the day.”

“We’re happy,” says Sam Cetrano. “Parenting is a tough, tough job. You go away all day and when you come back, you want to let down, but then your kids want you, so you have to share yourself. Parenting is the best thing in the world, don’t get me wrong, but I think grandparents are more relaxed all the time. I know I am.”

Along with the bonding that takes place between the children and the seniors, the program has another benefit. It provides an opportunity for members of the parish to engage with the school and learn more about it.

“As you walk through, you can see and get a feel for how the school is operating and the good things that are happening,” says Sharon Cetrano.

“We’re always looking for ways to engage the parishioners of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Parish with the St. Thomas community, and this is one way that we do that. It’s a beautiful, intergenerational approach. I think that there is so much to be learned when you combine the young and the young at heart, and I think we see that come alive when our senior parishioners come to the school and work with our pre-K students,” says Sanborn.

“It gives the children an opportunity to meet people from their parish, and they see that they are kind, that they’re loving, and it draws them closer to the Church and closer to Jesus,” says Father Wilfred Labbe, pastor.

When you see the parishioners and the students interact, it’s hard to tell who is getting more out of their time together.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with kids so this kind of brings that back” says Southwick, who was an assistant teacher in a preschool for 30 years.  “I enjoy it.”

“My grandkids are all bigger, so this is fun. It’s fun. I always think of the little ones as our future, so it’s nice to be with them,” says Jalbert. “They seem to like that we’re here.”

“It’s just heartwarming to see children having a wonderful time,” says Sharon Cetrano. “Sometimes you wonder what the children get out of the program, but there was one little boy last year who just latched on to me and my husband. We would see him around town, and he would wave to us. Walking out of church, he would say, ‘Hey, there are my grandparents.’”

Sanborn says the faces of adults and the children radiate joy when they are together.

“The joy is contagious. You can see it. You can feel it,” says Sanborn. “It’s absolutely contagious, and we hope to continue this for many, many more years to come.”


A foster grandparent helps a preschooler make a handprint turkey.
A preschooler makes a handprint turkey.
Sam Cetrano with a preschooler.
Sharon Cetrano with a preschooler.
A foster grandparent and a preschooler display a handprint turkey.
A foster grandparent reads a book with a preschooler.