Liz Dixie could be forgiven if she didn’t answer to her name anymore. At Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana, consumers and staff all know her as “Grandma.” That nickname is a natural perk of her years of volunteering at Easterseals Arc.
Grandma, who is 79, arrives by Citilink bus about 7:30 most mornings, then catches the bus back home around noon. Each morning, she helps prepare four rooms in Easterseals Arc’s Adult Day Center as the first consumers arrive. She helps the staff in each room prepare supplies, and she greets consumers as they arrive.
And so begin the calls of “Grandma” that continue until she leaves the building to catch that bus at noon. Staff members and consumers alike call her “Grandma,” no matter how much she teases them — teasing always delivered in a grandmotherly fashion.
In the kitchen, where she helps kitchen supervisor Nina Caldwell, she explains that she’s what really keeps it running.
“I do all the work,” Grandma says.
“Grandma, don’t start with all those stories,” Caldwell warns her, laughing.
Grandma has been a dedicated volunteer for many years, ever since she retired from Lincoln National in the early 1990s, where she had worked as an accountant. Through the Foster Grandparents program, she has been a volunteer at Easterseals Arc of Northeast Indiana for more than a decade.
What keeps her at it? That’s easy.
“The love,” she said. “Knowing each one of these kids, their habits and what they need keeps me going.”
Saying they’re “kids” isn’t far wrong. Most of the people with disabilities who she works with are young adults, many in the Transitions program. The Transitions program at Easterseals Arc focuses on working with young people shortly after they leave special education programs in K-12 schools.
Her bond with consumer Luke is particularly strong. Nearly every day, she walks with him through hallways at Easterseals Arc for up to an hour or more. Luke, who cannot speak, enjoys walking for long periods in the morning, stopping at the windows of many rooms to look inside or to watch his own reflection. He needs someone to accompany him on his strolls through the building, and it has to be someone patient enough to let Luke set the pace. It suits Grandma as much as Luke.
Grandma’s experience helps her connect with the young people in day programs at Easterseals Arc.
“Sometimes you need to tell them what they need to do,” she said. That amounts to a lot of telling she needs to dish out, but it never comes out as a scolding. Instead, Grandma is just there — just everywhere — in the mornings at Easterseals Arc’s ADC classrooms.
“She visits and talks with all of us, and she talks with the clients,” said staff member Pattie Robinson. “She’s very loving and caring, definitely.”
In her working years, Grandma was not always an accountant. Though that’s the degree she earned almost 60 years ago, she couldn’t find a job in the field when she moved to Fort Wayne with her husband after she graduated. Instead, she landed a job with Fort Wayne Community Schools teaching special education at Snider High School and Indian Village Elementary School.
“Some of them could get a job,” she said of the Easterseals Arc consumers with whom she spends her mornings. She would like to see more of these young people in more practical classes, providing more instruction past high school in subjects such as cooking, math, spelling and art. She wishes that they had more support for selling things they make, such as projects in art classes.
This Grandma’s chiding goes only so far, though. The bond her volunteer work creates with staff, clients and even the families of clients rewards her in ways far beyond any payment. She really does get treated like a favorite Grandma by scores of people at Easterseals Arc.
A framed message — a gift from Luke’s mother to Grandma — says it all: “Grandkids are spoiled because you can’t spank grandmas.”