Telephone 'grandmas' help guide latchkey children Program modeled on Chicago service

August 25, 1993|By Amy P. Ingram | Amy P. Ingram,Contributing Writer

To the children, she's just Grandma Ethel. But others say the 73-year-old with 25 grandchildren is more than just a grandmother -- she's the "Dear Abby" for kids.

Ethel Graves, part of a county social services program, has been giving advice to hundreds of children for about five years.

Mrs. Graves volunteers her time each year to "Grandma Please," a program for latchkey kids.

The project, copied from a similar initiative at Hull House in Chicago, allows children who stay home alone after school to call and talk with various "grandmas" from the area.

The children can talk about most anything they want, from school to family. But names, phone numbers and addresses of both the child and senior remain confidential.

Mrs. Graves, who lives in Glen Burnie, said she became a part of the program because she loves children and is concerned with their ever-increasing neglect.

"Latchkey kids are increasing, especially since my day," Mrs. Graves said. "It bothers me a lot to know all they have at times is the television. Parents today are more concerned with 'things' than with them."

Fliers touting the program have been distributed to each county elementary school since 1989. Come September, the phone lines in at least seven senior homes will be staffed and ready for action.

Marilyn Kenney, supervisor of the program for the last two years, said seniors have been receiving up to 500 calls a year.

"It's a service to both senior citizens as well as housebound children," she said. "As long as we've helped just one student in some way, we've been a success."

She said the seniors refrain from trying to impart morals or values to the children.

"We like to keep it simple. We do not discuss sex, religion or politics," Ms. Kenney said. "I tell all my seniors they're not there to preach, they're there to chat."

All of the seniors are screened by Ms. Kenney to make sure they are friendly and not judgmental.

They are then briefed on the rules of anonymity and the acceptable topics.

"We're not a hot line, just a help line," she said.

Mrs. Graves would love to meet and hug the children she gets to know over the phone.

Some have called her almost every week for two years.

"To have a friend, you've got to be a friend," she said. "We're a phone grandmother, I know. Although we could never be a personal grandmother, I make sure they know they're special and not alone."

She said she makes it a point to encourage the children to read, keep up with school and stay away from the television as much as possible. But she also makes it a point to have fun and laugh.

"Mostly, they're about relationships in school," she said.

To questions about homework, she tells callers, "I'm good at spelling and love to read, but I'm older now and my math was different from yours."

For more information on volunteering for Grandma Please, call 974-8597.

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