GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — We can always keep learning, and that is why two grandparents from the Congo went back to the first grade.
In Kent County, people who are 55 and up can apply for the Senior Neighbors’ Foster Grandparents Program. The program allows the grandparents to serve as mentors and tutors for students and help in the classroom. In the history of the program, there has never been a refugee foster grandparent, let alone two, until Francois Mwabi and Jerome Menyo.
“The kids kind of fight over who gets to work with him,” Stephani Vanlonkhuyzen, a first-grade teacher at Glenwood Elementary in Kentwood, said.
“Just having them come in every day, everybody lights up, the kids, the staff. Everyone even tries to learn more of each other’s languages, just so we can better communicate with each other. It’s really heartwarming just to have that connection and that elder representation,” Maddie Rhoades, Kent School Services Network’s community school coordinator at Glenwood Elementary, said.
Rhoades said Kentwood schools are very diverse, with 16 different languages present. So when she wanted to find foster grandparents for Glenwood Elementary, she wanted people who could interact with the kids in their first languages.
“I really advocated that I wanted a volunteer who was representative of our kids, and Glenwood is incredibly multilingual,” Rhoades said.
She found that with Mwabi and Menyo. While the kids are able to learn from them, the grandpas are also practicing their English and learning from the kids and teachers.
“As an elder, I’m so happy to sit with the kids and to be taught by a teacher,” Menyo said.
For Mwabi, working with the kids also helped him get exercise.
“Being here and interacting with the kids and talking with the teachers, it’s kind of exercise. It’s kind of gym I’m doing here. It is good for my health too,” Mwabi said.
The kids and classroom also helped him remember and honor the home he was forced to leave.
“All my assets, I left it there. I was obliged to flee. Unfortunately, during those times of war, I lost my child, who was five years old,” Mwabi said. “Sometimes I think, if he would have come with me, he could be even a student at this school.”
Menyo and Mwabi said their favorite memory from this past school year, was graduation. They were able to represent the Congo with other students.
“We were so excited that our country was represented and people could applaud,” Menyo said.
They both plan to be foster grandparents again and they are ready to get back in the classroom.