Generations bridge the gap

Club: Howard County teens and seniors are learning from and about each other - and having fun while they're at it.

February 19, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They danced to reggae music, formed a conga line and did the electric slide. And now, as one elderly woman held onto her cane, the group of Howard County senior citizens figured out jitterbug steps to the disc jockey's mounting drumbeat of "Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing)."

No matter that their dance partners, Long Reach High School students, were young enough to be their grandchildren.

"I'm having a lovely time," said Katern Thweat, 79, of Columbia, who shuffled slowly to "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll," with student Jatin Shah. "The children are so nice."

The 30 senior citizens and 30 students are members of Intergenerational Connections, a group sponsored by Long Reach High School and the Howard County Office on Aging. The group, which meets monthly for joint activities at the Columbia school, gathered last week in the school atrium for its first Valentine's Day Dance.

"I'm having an excellent time," said Jatin, 17. "I do it because it's fun and it's a good thing to do. It's all happy faces."

Long Reach is the only county high school with an intergenerational program. The senior citizens are members of three Columbia and Elkridge senior centers. "This is outreach," said Charley Ward, 73, a retired Elkridge window decorator and actor. "I dropped the name Bette Davis and they didn't know who she was. And we learn from them - interest and good will. And it's fun to let them know that some of us never grow old."

The program was conceived in January last year when Katie Chesler, a Long Reach Gifted and Talented Program resource teacher, contacted Judi Bard, program specialist for the county Office on Aging, about launching a Grandparents Day program because many students' grandparents live far away. But Bard suggested a monthly intergenerational program such as she runs with several county middle schools.

The school also has many foreign-born students who could "bridge the generation gap" with seniors from other countries, Chesler said.

Chesler, a former English teacher, recruited students from the National Honor Society, the English for Speakers of Other Languages program and from her classes, asking if they needed community service hours or enjoyed working with seniors.

"It gives us a good chance to interact with people who we one day aspire to be," said Jennifer Meister, 17. "It gives them a chance to get out and to see that people care about them."

Chesler, Bard and Barbara Gumpert, director of Longwood Senior Center in Columbia, met with participants in advance to discuss concerns.

"Seniors were afraid of school security," Bard said. "Students were concerned about the seniors' frailty."

The program began with three activities generally held during homeroom, plus another 30 minutes from the next class. The first activity was a "get-to-know-you" meeting in March at the school library, which included a luncheon donated by Elkridge Furnace Inn.

At another event, Tim O'Brien, instructional leader of Long Reach's social studies department, led a discussion on World War II, the Depression and racial tensions.

"History really comes alive when the senior citizens talk about their lives," said Erica Savage, 17. "They tell us how to avoid failures they made and copy their successes. I like hearing details about their lives, how the women painted black lines up the back of their legs during World War II to look like they were wearing stockings because there was a shortage. You wouldn't learn that in history."

For this year's programs, Chesler enlisted drama teacher Cate Barry's help. Chesler also submitted a grant proposal to the Weinberg Foundation and was awarded $1,200 in September to enhance the activities.

This year's events have included a photography presentation by Long Reach teacher George Day, who brought in an antique camera, and a cooking demonstration by home economics teacher Debbie Belote.

Not all students were anxious to join. "[My friends] kind of roped me into it," said Terrence Williams, 17. "But it's been a lot of fun. It shows them we respect them. It shows us that our seniors still want to have a good time."

During the dance, seniors and students played board games and ate desserts, including a Valentine's Day cake.

"I would dance, but my knee gave out," said Margee Flowers, 87, of Columbia. "I had another meeting today, but I'd rather come to this. I hope they enjoy it as much as we do. I feel good about the future when I see kids like this."

Participants also have formed friendships. Gwen Duong, 17, who joined the program after her grandfather died, visited Alfred Manasseri at his senior complex when he was sick. Manasseri, 89, plans to attend Gwen's graduation in May.

"It's such a good opportunity to meet people like Al," Gwen said. "Al has taught me a lot because he lived through so much. It helps me think about the future."

Future events will include a personal safety presentation and an art activity. "I come all the time," said Roza Zimmerman, 76, of Columbia. "When a child gives you a hug, it's like medicine."

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