By Matt Marn
They say it is better to give than to receive. And in many cases, the benefits the people we help are given can far outweigh our personal rewards. Unless... unless you see their faces light up with a bright smile. Unless you can see they are truly better off after what you did for them.
That is exactly what Benevilla’s Inter-generational day program is all about. The adult participants of the day program at Lucy Anne’s Place sit down for a weekly morning session of fun with some of the children enrolled in Wirtzie’s Child Development Center. The participants of these two programs on Benevilla’s main campus join together for fun activities, such as singing and many other fun, purposeful activities. During singing sessions adults often read the words as they sing along, while the kids sit on the floor with noise making instruments, and play their hearts out.
Today as they gather, visiting pianist Dorris Pierret leads them in the sing-along, including numbers from classic musicals, like “Danny Boy” and “Kiss Me, Kate,” mixed in with nursery rhymes like “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” and “B, I, N-G-O.” They ended with “God Bless America,” where the sitting adult participants rose and put their hands to their hearts. One participant, wearing a retired Navy cap, raised his hand in a salute.
As the session went on, the kids got more into the music, clapping and beating the various instruments on the floor around them. Some made their way over to the adults, and climbed up into their laps to clap along with a new friend.And soon, smiles are contagious on both sides.
Allison Koegel, director of Wirtzie’s Child Development Center, sees this each and every day. Koegel was one of the key players in starting up a similar inter-generational group in her home state of Illinois, and had already seen the benefits of what a program like this can do for both parties. When she saw the role available here, she knew it would be an amazing opportunity.
“One day during the first few weeks of the program, we captured the essence of bringing the two generations together," Koegel said. “An activity therapist brought out a set of horseshoes to play, and one little girl had never seen them before. A ‘Grandpa’ taught her how to play, right there, and they both lit up. You could see the connection; the awe in his eyes as he taught her, and she was so excited to learn this new game... it literally brought tears to my eyes.”
Koegel elaborates on the terms ‘Grandpa’ and ‘Grandma,’ saying at Wirtzie’s, the teachers and staff call the adult participants these titles in order to help teach the children to see the adults as part of the family and to address them with the same respect, and that they are not intimidating, but warm, caring people just like their own families - not to mention they have so much to share.
“That generation has so much to offer the younger generation,” Koegel said. “In the United States, they are not looked up to as highly as elsewhere, and that breaks my heart. They’re the ones with the stories, with the lessons on respect and caring... it takes a group, a community, to help everyone - especially a child.”
Now that Wirtzie’s - as well as the inter-generational program - has been open for children almost three years, Koegel said she has an amazing team of staff she views as more of a family than a corporate center.
“Some other care centers see the family as a number, but we want them to be personally served, a part of the community,” she said. “Without that, you lose what we try to do here, what we believe in. Everyone here really has a smile, knows everyone by name, asks about the participant’s family... Without that, you lose the compassion, the community. We work hard to keep that community, to protect it each day. That is my goal, in particular: for families to feel safe, to not worry where they drop off their kids. Without that, if we don’t instill that in a young age, we lose that forever.”
Koegel also knows the benefits of the inter-generational group are physical as well as mental. Through activities this duo partakes in, be they games, heading outside to the garden, making cookies, crafts with marshmallows (the adults set a bad example and began to eat them - the kids soon followed), or bringing in musical performers like harp players, harmonica players, clog dancers, or the pianist sing-alongs that got everyone clapping along, there are many more benefits than you would think, for both generations involved in the activity.
She mentioned that these activity sessions can enhance fine motor skills for both generations. Keeping muscles moving through activities like watercolor painting can help children develop these fine motor skills, while the adults can help prevent arthritis. Other benefits for both groups can include language skills, and improved self-esteem, which is key for the adults.
“In these sessions, kids learn when a grandpa or grandma tell stories from earlier in their lives, and it also helps them keep those mental connections in place and working,” Koegel said. “It is so interesting to see what a child will say that will jog an adult’s memory. One day, we were headed for the garden, but it started to rain, so we had to stay inside. A child said something about digging in the mud, and a grandpa started telling stories about how he used to work construction, and drove giant earth-moving equipment. All the kids were listening, with eyes wide - they were so excited.”
Cindy Morales is the Activity Lead of Lucy Anne’s Place - the adult day program that meets with Wirtzie’s. She said her participants love the inter-generational program sessions.
“They love to see the kids,” she said. “One of our participants reminds one little boy of his own grandpa. They love the interaction, especially the sing-alongs, and when they get up and start dancing... Even for just those 30 minutes out of the day, they really love it. They have fun, and they make it fun for me, too... it’s great. I love the interaction between them.”
Morales said some adult participants look forward to the sessions with Wirtzie’s most of all. One adult even wants to read to the children, and one comes to Lucy Anne’s only for the inter-generational group sessions. The changes they make on each other is hard to miss.
“One little girl was just sitting there, doing nothing one day,” Morales said. “An older participant reached over and took her hand and just started patting it, rubbing her hand. The girl looked up and smiled.”
Koegel said the greatest benefits from this program are the respect and comfort that stem from the children's’ interaction with the adult participants. For the adults, just having someone to talk to, someone to release to, who is genuinely interested, can make all the difference. And in turn, the children learn the more senior generation is not intimidating, and they begin to warm up and interact very differently with them.
Morales agrees this can make a big difference, not only with the children, but with her adult participants, as well.
“Some of my participants were teachers, so they have that interaction with children still in the back of their minds,” Morales said. “Their own kids may now be too far away, and it benefits them to see kids again, to see youth... they love the interaction, both nourishing the children and themselves.”
Koegel also sees this impact, and the lives it can change along the way.
“I can’t tell you how many times, particularly around the holidays, when we hear from a parent, ‘My son did so great around Christmas, he was no longer afraid of his grandparents,’ or ‘my daughter and I were in line at the store next to a senior, and my daughter just started talking to the lady, she had no fear, just started chatting...’”
Koegel's voice falters, and she trails off. But soon after dabbing her eyes, she continues.
“Hearing that what we do, what we care about so much here, really does matter and change things for the better, it leaves such an impact, for the staff as well as for the kids,” she said. “Even at a store, if it’s even about bubble gum, you never know - you don’t really think how much it could play a part in someone’s mindset."