"Good morning, children," Frances Ferguson calls cheerfully as she opens the door of the brightly colored hospital ward. "Grandma's here!"
She glances affectionately at two-year-old Sharon, whose tiny misshapen body lies contorted in a bean bag chair.
Joseph, who minutes before was detached and indifferent, begins shaking excitedly, smacking his fragile body against the sides of his specially-made wheelchair, flapping his arms about like a confused bird. A hint of a smile warms his sad little face as he reaches for Ferguson's outstretched arms and an embrace.
Similar scenes are repeated each weekday morning in this ward for severely disabled youngsters at the Hospital for Sick Children in Northeast, as foster grandparents arrive with attention and love for dozens of mentally and physically handicapped children.
"If I didn't have these children to come to every day, I'd be lonely, just sitting at home in my rocking chair," Ferguson, 68, a recent widow, says. "I'm so glad the Lord gave me a way to these little kids."
Like other foster grandparents, Ferguson is assigned her own special children. She calls hers Danny and William, her "grandsons." She spoon-feeds and dresses them, but, most importantly, she hugs and otherwise supplies the affection missing in many of the youngsters' lives since, being in the hospital for extended periods, they are isolated from their own families.
Ferguson is a member of ACTION's Foster Grandparent Program, a national, federally-funded project that brings together low-income retirees and youngsters in institutional settings four hours a day, five days a week. More than 125 people, assisting 290 children, work as foster grandparents in D.C.
Many are widowed, about one-third are men and almost all are black. The United Planning Organization (UPO) and Greater Washington Central Labor Council coordinate the city's projects.
Foster grandparents deliver their special brand of attention in a variety of settings -- hospital pediatric wards, correctional facilities, homes for the dependent and neglected, and institutions for the emotionally disturbed -- and take an equally diverse collection of backgrounds and skills with them.
Many say they fear life would be unsatisfying and without purpose if they were not in the program.
Eva Toney, head of volunteer services for UPO, said the children almost always respond to their new grandparents.
Take the case of Rachel, a five-year-old prone to violent seizures. When she arrived at the Hospital for Sick Children, her fists were clenched most of the time. Wads of cloth had to be forced between her fingernails and palms to keep her from tearing her skin. Completely noncommunicative, she bewildered the medical staff who sought to help her.
But after being with a foster grandparent who, in the words of hospital public relations director Mountford "Monty" Bodington, offered "infinite patience and love," Rachel unclenched first one fist, then the other, and finally held her foster grandmother's hand.
"We see an incredible trust and attachment that is built up," says hospital nursing director Patsy Larrimore. "It is beautiful to watch."
Joseph's story is another that reveals the effect of time spent with a caring foster grandparent. Joseph has a severe mental disorder. Round-the-clock, he tosses his head violently, then falls into hysterical crying fits. Suddenly, he is still, only to begin gyrating again.
Estella Scott, Joseph's foster grandmother, says, "Give him a little kiss, a little hug and a gentle pat on the forehead and he seems to feel better, less scared. I just try to make him a little more loved, a little happier." She bends over to grab Joseph's hand, holds it tightly in her own as if sending a special message.
Scott admits the work often is tiring, but adds, "It's the kind of 'tired' that's fulfilling and makes you know you must come to keep helping these little children."
Grandparents work in about 20 sites around D.C. with both sick and healthy children.
Each grandparent receives 40 hours of orientation and special training at the location where he or she will work. They become an integral part of the child care team, assisting the staff by preparing meals and changing children's clothes. They often accompany youngsters on field trips, to see Santa at Christmas or to hunt Easter eggs in the Spring, for instance.
For their service, the grandparents receive an $8 daily stipend and are reimbursed for transportation costs. Grandparents preferring door-to-door service may ride institution-provided buses.
They recieve a free meal each day they work and an annual physical examination at no cost.
To serve as a grandparent, one must be at least 60, physically able, and have a low income. Most also receive Social Security to supplement the moderate stipend.
Last month, 67 District foster grandparents, aged 60 to 83, received commemorative pins from the Greater Washington Central Labor Council as thanks for their participation in the program this year.
"If smiles mean anything," UPO's Toney says, "we're sure helping, giving grandparents something to retire to instead of from."
Ferguson, leaving after a day's caring, agrees. She admits to being just a shade tired, but "very fulfilled."