Fran Seeley could be forgiven for just wanting a quiet life – certainly one well away from classrooms full of boundlessly energetic third-graders. Yet this is precisely what the 74-year-old Portland resident has done five days a week for the last 14 years.

Working as a volunteer for the Foster Grandparent program, Seeley teaches math and reading skills to 8- and 9-year-olds at Lyseth Elementary School in Portland, and enjoys every minute.

“As far as seniors are concerned, it’s about hearing aids, scooters to get around in the store, dentures, long-term planning, funeral planning and even headstones,” Seeley said. “The message that gives is that seniors are on the way out, and what this program tells me is that I’m on the way in. I’m not ending; I’m beginning!”

Seeley’s efforts have not gone unrecognized. This week she was honored with a national award by the Senior Corps, a federal agency founded during the presidency of John F. Kennedy that connects people 55 and older with volunteering opportunities – for example as mentors, teachers or simply companions to the disabled to help them remain independent.

She is one of only five volunteers nationally out of a pool of 360,000 to be selected as a Senior Corps Hero.

Seeley was born in Dublin, Ireland, and has lived in Portland for 16 years. Never having had any children of her own, she says she became involved in the Foster Grandparents program after her husband’s death “to add some meaning to my life.”


Although Seeley is modest about her achievements, others are not. “The kids don’t just like her, they love her,” said Barbara Judge, a third-grade teacher at Lyseth. “The days she’s not here, the first thing they ask is where she is – ‘Is Grammy Fran all right?’ ”

On a typical day at Lyseth, a teacher will explain an idea, take questions and then set an exercise for the pupils to do. While the children are working, Seeley circulates through the classroom, identifies those who are finding it most challenging and sits with them at their desks to work through the more difficult areas.

Once a child has the hang of it, Seeley moves on, offering one-on-one tutoring to almost the entire class.

Thanks to this, the students at Lyseth know her extremely well, and there is often rivalry among classes as to who will get her assistance.

Senior Corps sponsors two programs in Maine in conjunction with the Portland-based Opportunity Alliance, offering training and flexible volunteering hours.

Susan Lavigne of the Opportunity Alliance said the idea behind Foster Grandparents is to enable senior citizens to draw on their experience and wisdom to help others.


The program has more than 200 members serving in 100 schools and child development centers.

“I like to say that the older generation is the greatest untapped resource,” Lavigne said. “In the past … there have been comments that older folks are a drain on resources, and I would say absolutely not. Once upon a time, folks would come into our program at 65; they are now applying at the age of 75 and 80, and they’re starting a new career.”

In Maine – which has the highest median age of any state – Lavigne believes getting senior citizens to volunteer can be immensely valuable.

“I hear from teachers all the time that they so value that extra set of eyes, ears and hands in the classroom,” she continued. “It’s very important – it takes a village to raise a child, and our Foster Grandparents are that village.”

Seeley remains humble. “I think being a Foster Grandparent in the classroom gives the kids a little extra support that is needed,” she said.

But when pressed, she allows herself a little smile.

“I see kids in the neighborhood – these big kids, who are either out of high school or finishing up – and they still look at me and say, ‘Hi, Grammy Fran!’ ” she said.


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