Late last month, fourth-graders from St. Gabriel Catholic School delivered hand-crafted biography books to senior citizens at Matthews Glen retirement community in Matthews. The books represented bonds developed during a year-long relationship between the students and seniors.
The relationships offered mutual benefits. The kids gained knowledge and skills like writing and interviewing; the seniors experienced the joy, hope of young people. They all made new friends.
“Professionally, this is the best thing I have ever been involved in,” said Becky Dinello, Activity Director at Matthews Glen. “The inter-generational connection is so important for seniors, especially as their health might decline, because they become more isolated depending on their family connections and community connections. I don’t know if there’s a word to describe how important it is, just to give them that joy. I get teary.”
The collaboration began 13 years ago, when a previous fourth-grade teacher at St. Gabriel, Jean Spiegel, and her daughter, then an administrator at Matthews Glen, came up with the idea.
According to St. Gabriel’s lead fourth-grade teacher, Elizabeth Patterson, this year’s group of 110 students was the largest they’ve had. The first step was to divide students into groups of four or five based on their skill and compatibility. The year-long collaboration would require interviewing residents, taking notes, writing and making illustrations for the books.
Before the groups traveled to Matthews Glen, they participated in an orientation. They participated in activities like trying to read while wearing Vaseline-smeared goggles, picking up and sorting small objects while wearing large gardening gloves and walking with wooden boards attached to their legs.
“It gives them good firsthand knowledge of what it’s going to be like when they visit,” Patterson said. “The seniors may fall asleep, they may be a little forgetful.... It’s just to let the children know what they’re going to expect.”
To conclude orientation, the students got a visit from Dinello, who read them a story called “The Grannyman” by Judith Byron Schachner. The story is about an old cat who is ready to give up on life, but meets a young kitten who gives him hope and a reason to live. Dinello said the story helped students gain sensitivity to the positive impact they can have on their “grandbuddy,” as the students refer to them.
The first meeting of students and seniors took place last October. The students dressed up in Halloween costumes and sang songs. The students returned for their second meeting in December and sang more holiday songs.
It wasn’t until the third meeting, in February, that the groups had one-on-one interactions. They started the two-part interview process to complete biographies of their assigned resident. After returning to Matthews Glen two more times, the students were ready to complete the books about the residents’ childhoods, families, pets, favorite foods and other details.
“The students make a new friend. They relate to somebody that is of another generation that can teach them something,” Patterson said. “Getting back on the bus, especially after the first interview, they’re all so excited to tell me, to tell each other, about their grandbuddy. ‘This one did this and this one did that,’ they’ll say. For these kids, they’re giving back and giving back to somebody with love and kindness ....”
Finally, one afternoon in May, the students loaded two big yellow school buses and headed to Matthews Glen for their final visit. The day was a celebration, beginning with a series of songs by the students, and concluding with hugs and “see you soons.” After the songs, each group led their grandbuddy to a quiet place to read and present their book -- filled with memories, laughter and tears.
“They’re all so innocent and sweet and it brings tears to my eyes to see them,” resident Ethel Jean Espy said of her group. “They just all seem very special...I think they’ve given me more than I’ve given to them, really. It’s just a wonderful experience.... I’ve loved every minute of it, and I just wish it wasn’t over.”
The relationship between students and their grandbuddies probably won’t end. Patterson said in past years, her students have returned to the retirement home to visit their grandbuddy.
“Residents love kids,” Dinello said. “They love to be around that youthfulness and exuberance and energy. I think it’s important for us as activity professionals to keep providing that any way we can.”