It started as a high school English assignment and has become a much bigger lesson on life.
For the second year, seniors at Upper Dublin High School visited with residents of Fort Washington Estates, an Acts Retirement-Life Community, to collect their life stories as part of an English course called The Art of a Story. This senior elective is taught by two teachers who were inspired by the popular Yale University course on the study of happiness and what makes for a good life.
Teachers Jesse Ippolito and Jen Kaplan had hoped the assignment, meeting with older people to talk about grit, resilience and how to persevere through challenging times, would empower their 17 and 18-year-old students who are anxious about starting their next life chapter as soon-to-be high school graduates. Little did they know, real friendships formed!
“We were able to pair up the residents and students who shared some common interests,” said Madeline Hlywiak, the life engagement director at Fort Washington Estates. “Music, sports, cooking, teaching, faith, values, and cultural similarities - it was amazing how many things linked them to each other!”
“Students met with the residents in small groups in the community’s billiards room, café, chapel, fitness room, and hallways - no place was spared,” she added. “Staff and other residents could be heard saying, ‘Are the kids here today?’”
“These residents are enjoying their lives, their relationships, and are still lifelong learners,” said Jen Kaplan, one of the teachers who created this incredible project. “Our students came to the understanding that one of the practices that leads to a happier life is that of kindness.”
“The teenagers also witnessed the importance of a very vibrant community of friends and social connections deep into your years,” she added.
“When the students visited, we heard laughter everywhere and conversations never lagged. When the meetings were over there were hugs and tears,” Hlywiak said.
Students shared pictures on their phones and emails were exchanged.
“My students were a bunch of young men on the football team,” said Linda Morgandale, a Fort Washington Estates resident who is participating for a second year. “Some of the boys sent me highlights of the games and photos of what they’re up to.”
“It’s been a very rewarding experience,” said Marion Kosinsky, another Fort Washington Estates resident who took part in the project. “It’s a different generation with different problems than we had growing up, but we shared our stories and connected.”
“The students are worried and concerned about their future, they asked us about having regrets and making mistakes,” Kosinsky said. “I told them not to dwell on things you can’t control and don’t be afraid of learning new things because you never know where it may lead you.”
“I told them, having regret means you’re living in the past,” Morgandale said. “You may have made different choices, but our decisions are based on the information we knew at the time, you can’t regret what you did not know.”
“Some of the young people may not live close to their grandparents, or may not interact with them,” she added. “This gives them the opportunity to connect because no matter our age, we all have something to offer.”
On Tuesday, December 12, students will reconvene at the retirement community for a heartwarming intergenerational event and will present their senior friends with personalized books on their life, handcrafted with embellishments and captions of what they learned. The 17 and 18-year-olds will also share letters of gratitude for this rare opportunity to learn from the older generation, months before they graduate and are thrown into the “real world” but now armed with new wisdom to learn and grow.
“This generation, our culture, moves so quickly, with social media, smart phones, and limitless abilities with technology,” said teacher Jess Ippolito.
Ippolito said, “One resident spoke about treasuring his wife’s handwritten love letters. To a generation that’s Snapchat and texting, this opportunity showed them the importance of putting more thought into how they communicate with others.”
“Crafting the books by hand, sitting down and talking to residents, showed students the value of putting more effort into enriching relationships,” she added.
Motivated and inspired by their interactions with the seniors, these high school students are paying it forward and will be mentoring sixth graders through a pen pal program, sharing how to navigate middle school and high school.
“It’s incredible how it’s come full circle,” Hlywiak said. “If there was ever a doubt that Loving-Kindness was lost among today’s young people, it was certainly revitalized through this wonderful experience.”