Friends across generations

Preteens, seniors share songs, stories at annual gathering


Over a warm supper at the Westminster Senior Center, a preteen and an septuagenarian struck up a friendship.

"I like art and chorus, and we will be doing a play for you today," said Allison Rath, 12. "It is kind of cool to get together."

Sylvia Marks, 78, agreed: "We like to have visitors, and we like them to see how active we are, too."

The annual spring activity, organized by teachers and pupils at the nearby East Middle School, brings youth and experience together to share stories, songs and this year's addition - bunny stitchery.

"The idea is to build community partnerships and to learn outside the classroom," said Mike Ely, a social studies teacher who randomly chose 30 pupils from a list of those who volunteered for the activity.

"It is a wonderful experience for the students," Ely said. "Many of these seniors are walking textbooks who were around for a lot of the stuff these kids only see in books."

When Allison called the center a "nursing home," her lunch companion gently corrected her.

Marks said, "I volunteer at a nursing home. I line-dance here."

Helen Huenemeyer, 66, added, "It really is all about tolerance. A lot of times, kids have the impression that we are old and decrepit. We can show them that we are more vibrant than they realize."

The sixth-graders entered the center cafeteria gingerly and took seats at lunch tables. They eschewed the stuffed peppers but dove right into the chatter.

"Kids are all picky eaters, and there is not much you can do about stuffed peppers," said Joyce Jackson, 66.

But peppers did not stifle camaraderie. Within minutes, the seniors had engaged the pupils.

"These are very friendly children with nice manners," said Lucille Black, 78. "We talked about school, pets and what they want to be when they grow up."

The pupils heard stories of learning in one-room schoolhouses, living through a world war and growing up in a rural county 70 years ago. Ethel Smith, 84, remembered a teacher who taught seven grades in the same classroom.

"That teacher managed well, but children were easier to manage then," Smith said. "What these children are going through now is so different from our lives. We can learn a lot from them."

Clifford Reeves, 11, said, "We can learn something from them, and they can learn from us."

Brent Kersell, 12, said, "These people have lived much longer than us, and they know a lot of stories."

This year, many pupils dressed in green and staged a belated St. Patrick's Day celebration, complete with baton twirling, tap dancing and a wee bit of Irish music and blarney for an exuberant audience.

It was his 11-year-old great-grandson who brought Walter Haschert, 83, to the center for the first time. The elder Haschert said he wanted to watch Dalton perform in a skit with his school friends.

He quickly found himself surrounded by children laughing at his jokes.

"I know Dalton can ski and play rummy, but we have to get him to sing," he said.

George Miller turned 85 the day of the visit and was treated to two rousing rounds of "Happy Birthday."

"A cup of coffee, a cupcake and kids singing. It made my day," he said. "I even got seconds."

Eurith Bowers, 80, led the young guests in lively old tunes. The children frequently didn't know the words, but they hummed along loudly. Bowers helped 11-year-old Amanda Compton rehearse "Danny Boy" and add a few flourishes.

"I love children and old people," Bowers said. "Those in the middle ages can take care of themselves."

During a sing-along, song leader Amanda showed a little stage shyness. Bowers quickly came to the girl's side and helped her croon the tune.

Marks applauded loudly as Allison's acting group staged a tale of St. Patrick. Their conversation continued softly through the other acts, which included a solo baton routine by Haven Shoemaker.

"Wow! She is good," said Marks as the young girl moved effortlessly, unaccompanied by music.

The finale was a sewing project - a stuffed animal designed by the school art teacher. Allison, who had practiced the sewing project the day before, promised her new friend she would quickly "get the hang of it."

The two stitched and stuffed until they came up with a soft bunny - safe for babies or pets.

"I have a black [Labrador retriever] at home, and this will be a better chew toy for him than my glasses," Marks said.

Allison promised a return visit, and Marks offered to teach her young friend the electric slide.

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