Foster grandma brings love to preschool class
FARGO - Amid the chaos of a boisterous preschool class, a 4-year-old girl named Nikky sits down to hear a story in the reading nook. There's a beanbag chair, but she opts for the comfort of Marmian Sangdhan's lap.
FARGO – Amid the chaos of a boisterous preschool class, a 4-year-old girl named Nikky sits down to hear a story in the reading nook. There's a beanbag chair, but she opts for the comfort of Marmian Sangdhan's lap.
"I love kids, and they also love in turn," said Sangdhan, a 61-year-old Bhutanese refugee speaking through a translator. "Whenever I just get into the building, they just come to give me a hug."
For two years, Sangdhan has volunteered as a foster grandparent in the Head Start preschool at the Southeastern North Dakota Community Action Agency in Fargo. Five mornings a week, she helps the teachers and students, who all call her by one name: Grandma.
"The kids just adore her," said Head Start teacher Lori Buck. And if Sangdhan misses a day, the kids, ages 3 to 5, have to know, "Where's grandma? Why isn't grandma here?"
Sangdhan is one of 12 foster grandparents in Fargo, many of whom work in Head Start preschools which serve low-income students. Of the 12, six are refugees from Bhutan and one is a refugee from Congo, said Karen Hillman, director of the Red River Valley Foster Grandparent Program.
Established in the 1960s, the Foster Grandparent Program began as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Participants must be at least 55 years old, and they have to work 15 hours a week. They are paid a small stipend, and their transportation costs are covered.
Since 2013, refugees in Fargo have volunteered as foster grandparents through a partnership with the Lutheran Social Services New Americans Program, Hillman said.
Sangdhan, a mother of five and grandmother of six, settled in Fargo four years ago with her family. To avoid the isolation of staying at home, she said, she decided to become a foster grandparent for the chance to work with children and to improve her English.
Through volunteering, Sangdhan has learned some English, but her skills are still limited, which can be a challenge in a class of all English-speaking kids.
"Sometimes, I understand a little bit," she said. "And sometimes, they speak in a way that I don't understand at all."
In those situations, she takes a guess at what the kids are saying or uses sign language to communicate. Sometimes their body language is easy to interpret.
"There is one baby, he likes me to just carry him," she said. "Whenever he sees me, he just raises his hands."
Buck said the class learns from Sangdhan, who taught the kids to count to 20 in her language. And after last month's earthquake in Nepal, where Sangdhan lived as a refugee, the teachers used a map to show the class the part of the world where Grandma is from, Buck said.
For 5-year-old McKenna, Sangdhan is someone to help her play with the classroom's blocks and toys. Especially, "the panda bears over there," she said, pointing to a table across the room. "We sometimes build something for them."
Much of what Sangdhan brings to the class are extra hands for cleaning up and another adult to shepherd the students, whose grandparents may not live nearby.
"It's a great intergenerational bonding for the kids," Hillman said. "It teaches the kids to respect their elders."
How to participate
Want to be a foster grandparent? Call Karen Hillman at (701) 795-3118 or Jaclyn Mracek at (701) 235-7341