Ypsilanti foster grandparents receive state award for decades of service

Ypsilanti residents Sanaa and Shawkey Ghobrial recently received a state honor for their lengthy service to Washtenaw County's Foster Grandparent Program. The Ghobrials were named winners of the Michigan Community Action Award for Volunteer Service and were honored at a ceremony in Lansing. The couple have served in the Foster Grandparent Program for 41 years in several locations around the greater Ypsilanti area, most recently Global Tech Academy and Ypsilanti International Elementary School.

Foster grandparents provide educational support and mentorship to children in educational and daycare settings. The Foster Grandparent Program is a national AmeriCorps Seniors Volunteers program. The Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development has sponsored the Washtenaw County Foster Grandparent Program for the last 56 years, making it one of the longest running such programs in Michigan. 

The Ghobrials have provided support to more than 1,000 children. They are now two of the oldest volunteers in the program. Shawkey is in his early 90s and Sanaa is just a few years younger. In 2023 alone, the couple served 2,653 hours as foster grandparents. 

The couple are originally from Egypt and share bits of that culture with children through various programs, most recently during a summer camp in 2023, says Sandy Bowers, Washtenaw County's Foster Parent Program supervisor.

Bowers notes that foster grandchildren are identified as needing extra support for a number of reasons, including a learning disability or some kind of emotional or behavioral support. While the grandparent is assigned to a particular child, Bowers notes that they "support all the children in the class."

That support can look like reading to a child or listening to a child read, or just sitting in silence with a pupil who needs to feel calmer and more focused. Bowers says foster grandparents become "part of the classroom environment."

"The children know them, trust them, and develop a relationship with them," Bowers says.

Bowers says the Ghobrials are just "two of our very neat people," noting that a core of regular volunteers keeps the program going. She says the Ghobrials are exceptional for the length of their service, adding that the program has "a whole lot of really impressive volunteers."

"We ask for a commitment of 20 hours, but some of our grandparents put in more than that," Bowers says. Volunteers receive a small stipend and financial assistance for transportation if necessary. 

"We're thrilled that children are getting the benefit of this cross-generational program and teachers are getting extra support in the classroom," Bowers says.  "But the most important thing to me is that we're touching the lives of seniors as well. Sanaa and Shawkey had careers and worked their whole lives, and then they retired and spent another 20 years doing something else. [Editor's note: the Ghobrials began volunteering with the Foster Grandparent Program before they retired.] And they did it together. That's pretty astounding."

For more information about the Washtenaw County Foster Grandparent Program, visit www.washtenaw.org/fgp.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of Washtenaw County.
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