Foster grandparent Don Graves had tears in his eyes when it was announced that he had won the Foster Grandparent of the Year Award.
"I'm speechless, this was really a surprise," Graves said. "I just love being with kids, playing with them and hugging them."
He said he joined the program a year ago after his wife died and he wanted something to keep him occupied.
Graves was honored at the Catholic Charities Foster Grandparents annual luncheon Thursday at Marinaccio's, 5877 Main St., Williamsville. About 100 foster grandparents attended and awards were given to those reaching one year, five years and 10 years of service. Handing out awards was Dorothy Turchiarelli, supervisor of the Foster Grandparents program.
Children and staff at Bornhava Specialized Preschool in Snyder, where Graves is a foster grandparent, organized a special day for him in June called "Don Day."
"All the kids were wearing shirts with a picture of me on them," he said. "They made a life-size poster and brought a cake."
Barbe Johnson, a teacher at Windermere Elementary in Amherst, said having foster grandparents in her classroom lets students have more one-on-one time and the special attention many of them need. She has had the same foster grandmother in her first- and second-grade classes for 15 years.
"They're great role models for the kids, just like a regular grandma," she said. "Grandparents get as attached to the kids as they get to them. They are able to give them more guidance."
Johnson said they're hoping to expand the foster grandparents program at the school because it's been very worthwhile.
The program places volunteer grandparents in schools, hospitals or other organizations where there are special-needs children, Turchiarelli said. They conduct interviews to decide what type of environment would be best for each volunteer.
Many grandparents end up staying at the same school for years, such as Bettye Ireland, a foster grandmother at Windermere. She will be starting her fourth year with first- and second-graders.
Before joining the foster grandparents program, Ireland had been taking care of her own grandchildren until her son was able to care for them again.
"For about a year I sat around at home twiddling my thumbs," she said. "Then my sister, who works at Women and Children's Hospital, told me about the program and said I should do it."
Ireland didn't know what to do with her free time once her grandchildren were no longer living with her so she agreed. She also wanted to work at Women and Children's Hospital, but ended up at Windermere.
"Now I'm glad I didn't go to the hospital," she said. "I love it at the school, it's so rewarding and the kids love sitting on my lap and giving me hugs."