Gateway students close generation gap Teens help nursing home residents

November 22, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Fourteen-year-old Carlos Dorsey learned a hands-on lesson at school: The joy of giving.

The eighth-grader at Howard County's Gateway School is part of the Magic Me program, which pairs students with nursing home residents to show the youngsters that helping others is a way of helping themselves.

Last week, Carlos and eight other students worked with Lorien Nursing and Rehabilitation Center residents to make colorful paper turkeys as Thanksgiving decorations.

The encounter touched Carlos, who had thought all elderly people were grumpy, cranky and uncooperative.

"It warms my heart," he said. "It really does. It's really fun to see people laugh and to make people laugh."

That is part of the intention of Magic Me, founded more than 10 years ago by Baltimorean Kathy Levine to motivate and educate youngsters who are in academic and behavioral trouble in school.

The organization's approach involves having students take part in community service with the elderly, disabled and mentally retarded. In addition to Maryland, the organization has branches in a number of other states.

Gateway, the school that Carlos attends, enrolls disruptive, truant or emotionally-troubled youths on a temporary basis.

Gateway students are the first in the county to participate in Magic Me, sponsored locally by Grassroots and The Columbia Foundation, which donated $5,000 for training and supplies.

Carlos, who lives with his grandparents, said that visiting his new-found friends has changed his outlook.

"It gives me a lot to look forward to. It gave me new friends. And I'm helping my grandmother a lot with stuff around the house. I used to mind doing it, but now I know they just need a little bit of help."

Before Gateway students made their first visit to the nursing home in October, they talked among themselves about the stereotypes they have of the elderly.

They also got the chance to role-play. Students smeared petroleum jelly on their glasses to see how the world would look if they had bad eyesight, and they wore oven mitts to experience the frustration of picking up items if they had arthritis.

The role-playing gave them greater understanding about the elderly and their health problems, students said.

Gateway teacher Jeanette Johnson says Magic Me has opened her students' eyes -- and given her a different view of them, as well.

"It gives you the chance to see the other side of adolescence that you don't see -- the caring, the compassionate, the patience, the giving," she said.

"Middle-schoolers are very selfish people. They put themselves first.

"But given this situation," she said, glancing at her students through a doorway as they helped cut and paste decorations, "they're no longer the most important people."

Thirteen-year-old Ahlia Barnes of Columbia worked quietly with a kindly woman she called "Ms. Ireen." They rarely talked. But in Ahlia's journal -- which all students are required to keep -- she wrote:

"We made Thanksgiving turkeys and my partner got to keep both of them and I would like to work with Mrs. Ireen more because I don't see one of my grandmothers very often and she reminds me of her because she makes me feel comfortable."

Ahlia said she has learned "not to make fun of old people and to respect them," she said.

"When I walked around the mall with my friends and we saw an old person walk funny, they would laugh and I would laugh," she said. "But now, I don't laugh anymore, because one day I'll be like them."

In his journal, Carlos Dorsey wrote:

"I'm pretty sure that the residents had fun making the turkeys and so did I. One lady . . . was kind of doubtful about what was going on, but I think I reached out to her and made her day better."

Students say they enjoy visiting their elderly friends.

"You get to know people and what their perspectives are," said 12-year-old Travis Randall of Dayton. "You learn what they've learned."

"They're all not slow," said 13-year-old Steven Springs, who lives in Elkridge. "They're good at what they want to do. And they all like to play bingo."

And nursing home residents like the program as well, many of them looking forward to the students' arrival each week.

"It's relating to a different age group," said 86-year-old Gladys Hawkins Jackson. "It's giving all of them experience dealing with older people."

l "It keeps you busy," said 78-year-old Mary DeLauder, who has two grown grandchildren of her own. "You don't have to think. And I enjoy being with the children."

Ms. DeLauder was paired up with Steven Springs, who helped her make five Thanksgiving decorations. "He's very nice," she says. "He could be my grandson."

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