Edna Crenshaw's story is like the others, she said, seated in the Kennedy Center Atrium wearing a fashionable low-cut blue dress. "I'm working at Madonna Nursing Center," she began.
"The kids are retarded and handicapped. I have a little boy, 12. We're both Virgos. He has brain deterioration and I've been working with him for seven years. He's very fond of me. When I stay away, he doesn't eat."
Edna Crenshaw is 81. She was one of about 75 "grandparents" who have worked for the entire 15 years that the nationwide Foster Grandparents Program has been putting senior citizens in hospitals, special centers or juvenile homes to work a few hours each day, mainly with sick or handicapped children.
They were all success stories last night. Kids who hadn't smiled in years now smile. Kids who were lackluster now respond. Maddie Savage in Wisconsin has a 19-year-old. He can't hear or talk. He toddles -- "just a glob of human flesh," said her daughter Canary Lamar. Savage has worked with him for 10 years and taught him how to pull a wagon.
Last night was the 15th anniversary celebration. There was a movie about the program called "A Touch of Love" and a party in the Atrium with plaques awarded to all the grandparents and a birthday carrot cake. And since the bottom age for joining the program is 60, all of these foster grandparents were at least 75.
An 88-year-old black woman named Mattie Cooper of Nashville -- the eldest -- looked a good 20 years younger as she cut the anniversary carrot cake. "A lady came up to me," said Cooper smiling, "and said, "They must have the wrong lady.'"
Fewer acted it. "I do okay for short distances," said white-haired Opal Greaby, 81, handing her cane to a friend before taking her triumphant walk over to get her plaque.
And at least one ignored it. "I'm 19 -- I was born July 19, 1919," said 80-year-old foster grandparent Connie Mack, a thin black woman with long red nails, who works at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. "I ought to be able to keep one of those 19's, don't you think?"
Yesterday morning, Rosalynn Carter greeted them for a few minutes during their White House tour and reception. In the afternoon there was a congressional luncheon at the Rayburn Building. On the Senate side, the likes of Sens. Alan Cranston, David Durenberger, Daniel Inouye, Carl Levin and Don Riegle were there. From the House came Claude Pepper, Mario Biaggi and Paul Simon, all of whom spoke. Plus, there were Pat Schroeder, Ed Roybal, Mary Rose Oakar, Lou Stokes an Les AuCoin.
"I've never seen a turnout like that," said Mary King, deputy director of ACTION, last night at the reception. The $48 million program, which is part of ACTION, runs in 282 cities and utilizes about 17,000 grandparents, who receive small stipends for their work and a hot meal each day they work. "In fact, this is one of the most popular programs of the federal government. It ranks up there with the Peace Corps. pPeople feel so hopeless about mental retardation in children -- what do you do about it? You galvanize the efforts of your senior citizens."
Indeed, this was a galvanized group. "I've got a girl who's 21 years old," said Chris Peterson, 81, from Madison, Wis., balancing a coffee cup and a plate of carrot cake. "Had her 11 years. She's in a wheelchair. The other day she said to me, 'Hi, Grandpa!' And she's not supposed to talk."
"I've had two girls for nine years," added his wife, Nora Peterson, 83, standing next to him.
"Together we've got 30 years," and Christ Peterson. "This has been the most enjoyable time of my life."
"She raised 10 children of her own and 11 foster children in her own home -- so this was a natural for her," said Cecelia Dade of her mother, Mattie Savage. Added her sister Canary Lamar, "She joined this program when they wouldn't let her have more foster children. They said she was too old."