COLUMBIA, SC — Luther Chisolm sits quietly in the middle of a long row of tables surrounded by a group of antsy first-graders. It’s lunchtime at Caughman Road Elementary and the 6- and 7-year-olds are peppering Chisolm with questions.
“Grandpa, what is this?” says one.
“Grandpa, do you like apples?” says another.
To outsiders, the 74-year-old may seem past the point of being up for grade school. But to the boys and girls of this Richland 1 school, their “grandpa” is a welcome sight.
“He’s fun,” says 6-year-old Donovan Gates. “He helps me do my work.”
A retired Coca Cola plant worker, Chisolm is part of a group of retirees and senior citizens known as Foster Grandparents.
The program — part of a larger federally funded initiative that receives local matching money — currently has 89 participants in Richland 1, Richland 2 and Lexington 4 schools. In many cases, the “grandparents” provide an extra set of hands or eyes in the classroom as well as the wisdom of their years, in exchange for a small stipend.
But as one of only two men in the program, Chisolm is something of a rare commodity.
“The kids love grandpa,” says Caughman Road first grade teacher Kelly Kissiah.
Chisolm has been helping in Kissiah’s classroom for more than a year. From Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Chisolm is there alongside students as they read or practice lessons. He’s even gone on class field trips.
“Teaching is a predominantly female-oriented profession,” she says. “So just having that extra male perspective has been great.”
And school officials say they’d like to recruit more “grandpas” to join their ranks, especially to serve as positive male role models.
Kissiah says Chisolm tries to circulate around the classroom getting to know each student as individuals but sometimes, she says, there are those who need extra attention.
Boys in particular, Kissiah says, can sometimes become a bit restless. When that happens, Chisolm may take that child aside, go for a walk around the school or offer a few words of encouragement.
The extra time and mentoring has been wonderful, she says, “especially for the boys.”
Kissiah and Chisolm say in some cases, students may only have a mother or grandmother raising them.
“Mothers do the best they can,” says Chisolm. “But they can’t be everywhere.”
For Chisolm, himself a father to three children, seven stepchildren and many more grandchildren, being around children is second nature. But he and fellow Caughman Road grandpa Jacob Johnson admit keeping up with such a high-energy group can sometimes be a little taxing.
“Some of them are pretty swift,” says Johnson, 74, laughing.
But the retired brick mason says mentoring children keeps him active and gives him “an opportunity to get up in the morning.”
“It helps me too,” he says. “I can learn along with them.”
The two men say they are proud of their role as grandpas at Caughman Road.
“I tell them they can be anything they want to be,” Chisolm says. “At the end of the day, I feel like I’ve helped somebody be a better person than they were the day before.”
Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.