Some of the kids call Daisy Jones grandma.
It doesn't matter that they see her only during school hours. Many of them don't live near their grandparents, and even if they do, they don't spend time with their elders.
But they spend time with Jones. Or maybe it's more like she makes a point to spend time with them, mentoring them through their assignments during the school day.
"So, they call me grandma," Jones said, her voice cracking.
She pauses. This is an emotional moment for her. She treasures the bonds she's formed with students in the four years she's been volunteering at Southwest Charter Academy in Lake Charles.
That's how long she's been a part of the AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program of Southwest Louisiana in Lake Charles.
"There are foster grandparent programs in cities throughout the state, including Lafayette and Baton Rouge," said Kathy Richard, program director for the Lake Charles branch. "Each program has a sponsoring site. The sponsoring site in Lafayette is the Council on Aging. Here in Lake Charles, it's the Boys and Girls Club."
No matter the sponsorship, all of the foster grandparents programs are the same. They're open to volunteers age 55 and older, all of whom must complete training courses and pass background checks.
Volunteers are then assigned schools, and their only contact with students are in those schools during school days.
"They're never left in the class alone with students without a teacher there," Richard said.
Once in the classroom, their purpose is mentorship. They work with small groups or one-on-one with students on assignments and a few life lessons along the way.
"I tell them it's OK not to know, but it's not OK not to try," Jones said. "Sometimes you don't know how closely they're listening. One student I worked with walked up to me one day with a question about basketball. I didn't know anything about basketball, and I told him I didn't know the answer. He said, 'Well, it's OK not to know, but it's not OK not to try."
Did Jones learn some new things about basketball that day?
"Yes, I did," she said, laughing.
Jones, 73, had just retired from a full-time job with a major telecommunications company when she talked to Richard about the possibility of becoming a foster grandparent.
"After being retired awhile, I realized, 'Hey, this is not me — I've got to get involved,'" Jones said. "I knew I had to do something, but I didn't know what."
Jones had taken her own grandchildren to Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, which is where she was introduced to the AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program.
"I said, 'You know, that may be a good thing,'" she said. "So, one day, I went there to learn about what they had. I started talking to Kathy, and I didn't realize at the time that she was already setting me up in the program."
But Jones has no regrets. Neither do the program's other volunteers.
"They're making a difference, and they see it," Richard said. "The teachers see the difference, too. Some have assigned their grandparents specific things, like some say, 'My grandparents will be working strictly with reading in the fall.' The grandparents are assigned five or six students who are struggling in that area, and they work together."
The program has been a key component to classroom learning in the last few years with many students falling behind because of school closings caused by Hurricane Laura and COVID-19.
"The grandparents have given these kids a boost of confidence," Richard said. "With the one-on-one attention the kids are getting, they want to do more and learn more."
No matter the location, the AmeriCorps Seniors Foster Grandparent Program is always seeking volunteers.
"With the hurricanes in our area in recent years, a lot of our volunteers have moved elsewhere to be near family," Richard said. "Right now, we have only 26 in our Lake Charles program, and we get the word out any way we can."
Those interested in volunteering in the Lake Charles area can learn more by visiting bbbsswla.org/foster-grandparent-program. Prospective volunteers in other locations can visit americorps.gov/serve/americorps-seniors/americorps-seniors-foster-grandparent-program to find programs in their cities.
"My mother always told us when we were growing up that all that you put into the lives of others comes back into your own," Jones said. "Therefore, if I can make a difference in any small way, I'm grateful."
Jones believes making a difference means touching the lives of teachers as well as students.
"A teacher's job is challenging, and there are days they also need a grandmother if only to say, 'You are doing an awesome job," she said.