“Elder” Ellie Bushweller and her Reaching Out with Reading group including FHTMS students Brenna, Lola, Jasper, Katelyn and Trey (not in photo).

Reaching Out with Reading: Fostering Relationships Across Generations

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Thursday June 15, 2017

“We wanted to bring together people in the community who might not have the opportunity to share their lifetime of experience with young adults who would benefit from their wisdom.” So says Amy Blauvelt, librarian and media specialist at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School (FHTMS). This concept of fostering relationships across generations is the mission behind the middle school’s intergenerational program called Reaching Out with Reading - Sharing Our Stories. Blauvelt and FHTMS teacher Lori Centerbar began the program in October 2016 by recruiting elder volunteers, asking students if they had grandparents who lived close enough to be able to commit to a monthly meeting. Centerbar recalls, “When we realized that we did not have enough grandparents, we then went out to the larger community via neighbors, colleagues, and friends.”

They met once a month, cultivating the relationships between both age groups by featuring different themes each month, such as giving thanks, hobbies, movies, and music.

Centerbar, who is a seventh and eighth grade English language arts teacher on the Fusion team, had the inspiration to use the term “elder” for the older volunteers. She says, “We do a cultural simulation game in seventh grade called Rafa, Rafa. The game involves two cultures. One culture highly respects the older people in the community and refers to them as elders. I thought this was both an endearing and respectful term for this project.” Blauvelt adds, “I think things have changed so dramatically in the past 60 years, that young adults need to understand the experiences of the ‘elders,’ hopefully, fostering a mutual respect of a different generation.”

One such elder is Ellie Bushweller, a retired nurse and mental health counselor, as well as freelance writer. She became involved in the program when her 12-year-old granddaughter invited her to participate. She writes, “Each month the elders, as well as the middle school participants, are emailed information on that month’s topic, readings to be shared with the group and a hands-on activity to be completed during the get-together. No devices such as IPads, computers or IPhones are to be used during those meetings. The goal is to encourage conversation, direct interaction, and eye contact among the members of the group while having some fun as well.”

Describing Blauvelt and Centerbar as being “wonderfully supportive and engaging,” Bushweller calls Reaching Out with Reading a valuable service, noting it gives the students “a chance to put aside all the technology for a brief period and engage with a person from another generation in activities that are both interesting and fun.” She adds, “For the elder, it is a unique chance to meet and interact with some new young people and hear from them in a friendly and interactive setting. In my book, that’s a definite win-win.”

Blauvelt remarks, “I love seeing the elders share their memories, life lessons, and wisdom with the students and discussing their passions such as stamp collecting, World War II memorabilia, and gum wrapper chains. All things I remember from my grandparents.” For her part, Centerbar notes, “I love seeing the interaction and the ease with which they relate to one another. Because my own children have lost their grandparents, it is wonderful to see in my ‘surrogate’ children.”

Although the logistics were difficult at the program’s inception, namely the challenge of finding enough elders to participate, Centerbar reports, “I think the biggest testament of how this program has made a difference is hearing students eagerly ask, ‘When is our next elder reunion?’” Blauvelt recalls a particularly memorable moment when her next door neighbor entered with his box of mementos to share with the kids, “He pulls them out and glowingly talks about his past.” In fact, for some elders the program makes a big difference in their lives. Centerbar notes, “We have some elders who have recently lost their spouse and this program puts them around young people, who, for a short period of time, can distract them from their grief.”

As the school year comes to a close, Blauvelt reports that the two hope to offer the program again in two years. She sagely adds, “If anyone is interested in volunteering their time, they can contact either Lori or me.”

Bauvelt and Centerbar concur, both saying they feel honored and grateful to have the opportunity to meet such wonderful elders, people they describe as generous and eager to make a difference in their schools and community. Centerbar concludes, “A small group of people, even for a short period of time, can have a large and memorable impact.”

SOURCE: Carole Vasta Folley, The Other Paper