Students and Elders Share Camaraderie

Health, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on July 29, 2010
David Mudd Student Kathleen Button works on a puzzle with Sharon Casbon, Janowski and Irene Cartwright.

Along with chemistry and contemporary literature, students at Boone Grove High School in Valparaiso, Ind. (pop. 27,428), can take a class that fosters friendship, learning and understanding between generations. Called Project Care, the class is a student-run senior citizens center where the curriculum is camaraderie and love.

As Lauren Johnson, 17, hurries into the Project Care classroom, she seeks out Irene Cartwright, 78, to give her a hug. The two talk about their morning activities while lining up for exercises with about a dozen other teens and elders in the room furnished with a sofa, easy chairs and tables for games. Jigsaw puzzles assembled by the group brighten the walls.

“Is everyone ready?” asks project coordinator Bonne Goodrich, 54, as she pops in a workout video. The students and elders stretch, kick and step together across the room. Laughter erupts when a few people get out of sync with the exercise routine—and each other.

At a nearby table, Jordan Rich, 17, studies his wooden letter tiles in a game of Scrabble Upwords and tries to one-up Joanne Janowski, 72, the center’s undisputed queen of the word games.

“So, what’s a tine?” asks Janowski, teasing Jordan. Several students, including Jordan, learned that a tine is the pointed part on a fork after Janowski used the word to cinch a previous victory.

Jordan looks forward to socializing with his elder friends after physics and other brain-draining classes. “It gets you out of the routine of school, and it’s fun,” he says.

Meanwhile, Lauren loves visiting with Cartwright and getting her grandmotherly advice. “My grandma moved to Arizona, so I don’t get to see her, but Irene is my substitute grandma,” she says. “If I have a problem, I can ask Irene. She knows who my boyfriend is. We talk about a lot of stuff.”

Cartwright, a widow, is among 62 senior citizens who regularly attend Project Care. She shows up each school day at 8:15 a.m., chalks up six miles walking in the hallways, and then socializes with students the rest of the day.

“The program has saved my life,” she says.

Beyond the books
Since students started Project Care in 1995 to provide local senior citizens with a place to meet, the intergenerational program has been a success with both teens and elders.

“Relationships are built here that last a lifetime,” says principal Garry DeRossett, 56. “Students have learned in the traditional way since they were 5 years old, but learning from books doesn’t complete our students’ education.”

Each year, about 25 students enroll in Project Care, learning the logistics of running a community program and experiencing the satisfaction that comes from helping others. “The students are here because they want to be,” Goodrich says. “They don’t get any grade or credit.”

Teens tutor elders on computers and help with weekly blood pressure checks. They plan a full slate of activities each month, including crafts, movies and field trips. Students invite experts to teach classes on nutrition, cooking with herbs, how to stretch food dollars, home safety, identity theft and tax preparation. They also help Goodrich write grants and seek donations for the program. Once a month, the group celebrates birthdays and enjoys a potluck lunch prepared by the elders.

On some days, though, no one feels like exercising or playing rummy. “They end up on the couch, just talking,” Goodrich says.

Susie DeLucca, 80, a gregarious woman whom the students call “Busia” (Polish for “grandmother”), helps students who ask for advice with personal problems.

“I get so attached to these kids,” says DeLucca, who attends ballgames to cheer for the kids. “I still keep in touch with some of the students that have graduated and are in college.”

Good neighbors
Senior citizens in Valparaiso aren’t the only elders who head to school each day and look forward to spending time with their young friends.

In Cold Spring, Minn. (pop. 2,975), the Rocori Senior Center is located in three classrooms of Rocori Middle School. Students and seniors interact throughout the school year, competing in knowledge bowl games, playing bingo and cribbage, and singing German folk songs.

“Some of these students don’t have grandparents around, and here they learn the skills of communicating with adults,” says principal Cheryl Schmidt. “They hear a lot about what these adults went through at their age and develop respect.”

Each month, a committee composed of students and senior citizens plans activities. A favorite is Doughnut Day, when the group makes and sells 50 dozen doughnuts to fund the senior center.

Sharing the school building makes economic sense, too, Schmidt says. In exchange for their classrooms, seniors volunteer in the school’s media center.

In the seaside community of Swampscott, Mass. (pop. 14,412), officials also saved money by building a senior center that adjoins Swampscott High School in 2007. Previously, seniors met in a three-story house.

“The exercise room was on the third floor,” says Rod Pickard, 65, the center’s co-director. “The joke was that by the time we got there, we were too tired to exercise.”

High school art teacher Anita Balliro leads about 20 students who periodically lend a hand at the senior center and in the community. Last November, students and Rotary Club members visited seniors’ homes to install energy-efficient light bulbs and test smoke alarms. Balliro’s photography students also have taken formal portraits of the senior citizens and matted and framed the photos.

Students forge friendships with seniors in Newberg, Ore. (pop. 18,064), too. At lunchtime, students from Chehalem Valley Middle School walk across the street to the Chehalem Adult Enrichment Center, where they set tables, greet seniors and serve catered hot meals. Then, fourth-graders from Antonia Crater Elementary School next door pop in to help with cleanup.

Fourth-graders Lucas Klingler and Alexandra Wujcik don their work vests and enthusiastically clear away dishes and scrape plates. “It helps them because they don’t have to get up and down,” says Lucas, 9, about being a busboy.

“They always come in jumping and skipping,” says Mary Kreth, 74, one of the diners. “They’re so happy and we love to see them.”

Throughout the year, students bring school projects they’re working on, and the children and elders decorate cookies for holiday parties.

“The most important lesson that these students walk away with is that volunteering is incredibly fun,” says Matthew Compton, 28, center director. “They see that they have a genuine impact.”

Alexandra, 9, loves her noon visits to the center. “It makes me feel good to help others,” she says.