When the doctors are through prodding, the psychologists probing, the teachers lecturing, hundreds of lucky kids can turn to a person whose only job is to be supportive, caring and kind.

Salt Lake County Aging Services has placed between 70 and 80 of these "friends" in 16 schools, day-care centers, hospitals, crisis centers and other programs in the area, under the banner of the Foster Grandparent Program.The program is open to anyone 60 or older who has a total income of less than 125 percent of poverty - $572 a month for a single person or $770 for couples. In exchange for four hours a day, five days a week, the grandparent receives a stipend, travel expense reimbursement and one hot meal a day, according to Virginia Covert, program manager.

On May 17, the Foster Grandparent Program will celebrate 21 years in Salt Lake with a luncheon and special awards to honor participants at the University of Utah. Leona Besendorfer, who works at Hartvigsen, a school in Granite District for handicapped children, will be recognized for 20 years with the program. Daisy Wilkin, who works with emotionally disturbed boys at Primary Children's Hospital, and Amplus Sargent, formerly of Primary Children's and now in an area day-care center, have each been with the program 15 years. Other award recipients have not been announced.

The Foster Grandparent Program receives federal funding through ACTION, a national volunteer agency, as well as some state and county funds.

"People come into the program with their lifetime skills," Covert said, "and we take those into consideration when placing them. At one volunteer station for behaviorally disturbed children, we have two grandparents who were school teachers."

Regardless of placement, the grandparents work with supervisors, and they are not expected to perform tasks for the staff or in any way treat the children. "All they're expected to be is a grandparent," Covert said. "They are there to console, listen and be nonjudmental. They're not there to be watchdogs or counselors. They're there to be helpful."

Although the emphasis is on helping the children they "grandparent," participants receive a lot of benefits, too, she said. For one thing, they get a free physical examination and ongoing training. They get the hot meal every day. They earn vacation and sick leave (one four-hour shift each month). Plus, they are eligible to receive commodities. "We not only provide the Foster Grandparent Program and the opportunity to be involved and active," Covert said. "We also tap them into other kinds of services."

The oldest participant right now is 87, although a few years ago a 91-year-old was on the program. (She inherited some money, but she's still active at her volunteer station as a volunteer rather than a grandparent with a stipend.)

Covert said there is seldom a waiting list for eligible foster grandparents, and encouraged anyone interested in applying. Men are particularly welcome, because there is currently only a handful in the program.