NewsInspiring South Florida


76-year-old cancer patient finds joy, healing in West Palm Beach classroom volunteer program

Marion Maher volunteers for Area Agency on Aging’s Foster Grandparent Program
Posted at 7:23 PM, Mar 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-07 19:23:00-05

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Learning, color, and kids pretty much sums up what you’d find in most classrooms across the country.

But there’s also someone inside Ms. Sandra Balch’s kindergarten class at West Gate Elementary in West Palm Beach.

“I’m always blessed with the best grandmas," said Balch, "but this grandma I have right now is probably one of the most special grandmas I have."

The face on screen belongs to Marion Maher or as the kids call her, "Grandma Mary."

She’s a volunteer with the Area Agency on Aging’s Foster Grandparent Program and has been paired with Balch for four years.

“They just give me so much joy. I love working with them and I miss them terribly because I want to be at the school,” said Maher via video chat.

Grandma Mary is only able to connect with the class digitally for now, a side effect of the pandemic, made worse by a devastating discovery since then.

“It came last August,” said Maher, “I was ready to go back to school, because the virus was getting through and I'd had my vaccinations and then I was told I had the diagnosis of cancer.”

Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has kept the 76-year-old from where she wants to be most.

“Even though she’s been going through chemotherapy,” said Balch, “she still finds the time to work with my students and I think she’s the most amazing person ever.”

Grandma Mary volunteers three days a week for an hour, or more, giving kids the patience and attention they deserve in this ESE inclusion class.

“You can’t give these children enough,” said Maher, “they want to learn and every child should be able to succeed should have people wanting to help.”

Her sacrifice is enough to move even Balch, whose been teaching for33-year-old teaching veteran.

“No matter how bad things are, or how upset she gets, she has a smile on her face every day… I’m sorry she’s just an amazing person,” said Balch.

Maher says volunteering is a big part of her recovery.

“I could be sitting at home and being so bored and lonely,” said Maher, “and this just makes my day, this is a wonderful program to be in."

Even though Grandma Mary isn’t formally trained as a teacher, Balch says we can all learn something from her.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much you’re disabled, or how sick you can become,” said Balch, “you can make a difference in somebody’s life and she makes a difference every day.”

A little time, going a long way.

The local Foster Grandparent Program serves Palm Beach, the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee Counties.