DRACUT — It is snack time in Kath Mason’s first-grade class at the Greenmont Avenue Elementary School. As the kids take a midmorning break and enjoy some crackers, fruit or yogurt, many of them take the opportunity to flock to their special friend, Mrs. Labrecque, to show her what they are munching on, or just to chat.
“Mrs. Labrecque, I already ate all of my yogurt because it was sooo good!” exclaimed first-grader Meghan Valorose.
Meanwhile, two other students vied for her attention, one to show her the mini Cheeze-Its his mom packed for him, and the other looking for some guidance on how to use a spoon that doubles as a straw.
Patiently, Mrs. Labrecque focused her attention on each student until everyone was settled, quietly seated and snacking.
Bessie Labrecque has been a fixture in the class for six years. As part of the Foster Grandparents program run through Community Teamwork, Inc. of Lowell, Labrecque, 75, keeps the classroom organized, helps students with their lessons, and gives them an older friend they can rely on and trust.
She especially enjoys reading with the kids. To ensure that her attention is doled out equally, Labrecque goes down the class list and chooses a student to read with each day.
“I look at her like another teacher in the room,” Mason said. “She is my right hand. We have similar personalities and have become good friends, so she always anticipates what I’ll need next before I do.”
“Bessie is always one step ahead,” she added. “I cross my fingers every year that she’ll come back.”
When she retired from the Dracut tax collector’s office 14 years ago, Labrecque had another job waiting in the wings — professional grandmother. For several years she baby-sat her two granddaughters, now 15 and 12. As the girls got older, went to school and didn’t take up as much of her time anymore, Labrecque realized that she needed to find another activity to occupy her mornings.
“I guess I had grandmothers’ empty-nest syndrome,” she chuckled.
“I just love coming here every day and the staff at Greenmont is the best,” Lebrecque added. “They have made me feel so comfortable and I know just what to do when I come in every day. I am so glad to be here.”
Things have changed in schools since the last time Labrecque was a student, 60 years ago, but she has learned to roll with the changes and appreciate the fact that regardless of the era, some things will always remain the same.
“The first-graders are just as cute, honest, and observant as they always have been,” she said. “But I marvel at the way they are taught today; it is fascinating how quickly they learn. I think these kids are just born smart.”
Mason’s class is peanut-free, a relatively recent phenomenon as an increasing number of children suffer from potentially deadly food allergies, a problem that wasn’t an issue when her own children were in school.
But Labrecque has learned to deal with it.
“I used to bring donut holes in for the kids as a treat because they really loved that, but we can’t do that anymore so I’ve switched to Goldfish crackers,” she said.
In a time when many school programs have been crippled by budget cuts, Greenmont Principal David Hill sees the half-dozen foster grandparents who work in the school as providing a much-needed service that enriches the experience of all involved.
“The grandparents really enjoy the opportunity to keep connected with kids, and it fills our increasing need for help in the classrooms, either with groups of kids or individually,” Hill said. “The program helps the kids to gain a deeper respect for the elders in our society, who are not always valued as much as they should be, especially considering all they have to offer.”
So, what is the best part about being a foster grandparent?
“Getting hugs at the end of the day,” smiled Labrecque.
Have a story idea? E-mail Jennifer Amy Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org.