SANTA CRUZ -- To save money, 55-year-old grandmother Ernestina Saldana rides her electric wheelchair up a mile-long hill to reach Santa Cruz Gardens Elementary School.
Saldana, who mentors and tutors students five days a week, commutes from Soquel's Osocales Community Mobile Home Park. Riding up Thurber Lane is not a problem, she said.
"It's going down that's difficult," Saldana said. "And don't try to do it when it's raining."
Saldana works for the federally funded Foster Grandparent Program, which trains low-income seniors to assist teachers in nearly 40 Santa Cruz County schools. Unlike a teacher's aide, foster grandparents don't assist with administrative or disciplinary tasks, but instead focus on supportive mentoring, said Chris Greenwood, program coordinator.
Saldana receives around $200 per month for her 25-hour weekly commitment. The stipend makes a difference, she said, since she receives $1,365 in disability benefits each month. After rent, she said she's left with $65 and relies on food stamps, church pantries and friends for necessities.
Greenwood said the program, which provides transportation reimbursement and a lunch stipend, attracts seniors who want to volunteer but are deterred by out-of-pocket expenses. Applicants must be 55 or older and make less than $22,000 per year.
The program employed around 80 seniors last year, and 15 are on the waitlist, Greenwood said.
The county's single seniors need a minimum income of $29,223 to afford rent, food, health care and transportation, according to UCLA's 2011 Elder Index. The median social security income in 2011 was $12,523 -- leaving a nearly $17,000 gap, which leaves seniors dependent on relatives, resource centers and subsidy programs for basic needs, said Bob Campbell, program director at Seniors Council, the Aptos-based nonprofit that runs the local Foster Grandparent chapter.
"It's a third-world kind of thing," Campbell said. "Any kind of food sources they can get for free, they take advantage."
'Somewhere to go'
Since emigrating from Mexico to the U.S. in 1987, Saldana has bounced around Central California with her husband and children, working as a teacher and program specialist, most recently in Merced.
A divorce took away her support system while a car accident left her disabled and unemployed. In 2012, she decided to return to Santa Cruz County, where two of her children lived, and she was unemployed for more than a year before finding the Foster Grandparents Program.
"I wake up really early," Saldana said. "Now I have somewhere to go."
She said helping children makes her feel useful and fulfilled.
"There's a difference between living and surviving," Saldana said.
She said she senses isolation in her mobile home park, occupied mostly by seniors who stay at home, watch TV and don't know their neighbors.
"Because we are not as vocal as a mom with hungry children, society tends to forget about us," Saldana said.
Poverty affects seniors in a way that's about more than just housing and food, she said.
"It's having somebody to talk to, not just a cat or dog," she said.
Saldana said she looks forward to the program's monthly luncheons, where as the youngest member she learns from her peers' wisdom.
"There's this exchange that gives you a place to go, a reason to get up in the morning, to put in your nice earrings or your new shoes," Saldana said.
Saldana supports a mixed fourth- and fifth-grade classroom, taking individuals and small groups aside for academic help, sometimes in Spanish.
According to teacher Lori Makita, about half of the class is economically disadvantaged and 30 percent are English-language learners.
Without a teacher's aide, Makita said she appreciates Saldana's instructional help, but what's more is the emotional support she provides for students.
"There's a hierarchy of needs that kids need before they can start to work," Makita said. "So many kids today just want someone to sit down with them and listen to them for five minutes."
Student Mateo Mora said working with Saldana is like working with a cross between a teacher and a friend.
"If something's on your mind and stopping you from work, you can tell her," Mateo said.
Student Brigida Medina reads in Spanish with Saldana every week. Brigida said Saldana has taught her that making mistakes is OK.
"She's a teacher but we get along pretty well," Brigida said. "She's kind of like a grandma to me."