DARTMOUTH — Devan Turgeon is an 11-year-old student at the John Hannigan Elementary School in New Bedford who also attends the after-school program at Kids Ink Too, in Dartmouth.
Ceto Gonsalves is an 89-year-old resident of Elm Cottage, the Alzheimer’s disease unit at Sunrise Assisted Living on Slocum Road in Dartmouth.
What do they have in common? They thoroughly enjoy each other’s company — in fact, they can’t wait to see each other when they’re apart.
Devan and Gonsalves share in the Adopted Grandparent program at Kids Ink Too that matches school-aged children with a "gramp" at Sunrise. They are penpals; they exchange gifts; and they spend time together and bond when they swap visits.
"I almost cried when I saw Ceto," said Devan after a recent exchange when they hadn’t seen each other for a while.
Under the supervision of School Age Coordinator Stephanie DeSousa, the program allows students and seniors to share their lives and experiences informally, and also to develop students’ social skills, according to DeSousa.
"This program meets several of our goals," said Kids Ink Too director Jennifer Benevides. "They are learning not only to socialize with their peers but also to make new friends in a whole new age-group — and we are all having fun in the process."
Not long ago, Kids Ink Too hosted Green Eggs and Ham to celebrate Dr. Seuss’s birthday. "Devon met Ceto at the bus," DeSousa said, "and the two were inseparable the whole time." When the bus left to return residents to Sunrise, "Devon said, ‘I love Ceto,’" she added.
In addition to shows presented for seniors at Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, Kids Ink Too has taken students Christmas caroling at Brandon Woods Nursing home in Dartmouth, and they staged their own version of the "Annie" story written entirely by Kids Ink Too students. Other activities have included a tea party, baking classes and the exchange of Christmas, Mothers and Fathers Day gifts.
"When the children came here to sing songs and to read Dr. Seuss stories, our seniors were thrilled," said Stella DeSousa, reminiscence coordinator and manager of Elm Cottage at Sunrise; she is also Stephanie’s mother.
"They love the children’s youthful enthusiasm. And to see our residents’ faces light up as they remember a song or a line from a poem is so moving to me," Stella added.
Similar intergenerational exchanges are in place between public schools and the Council on Aging in Dartmouth.
For the past four years, Dartmouth High School Honor Society seniors have sponsored the Senior-Senior Dance — this year called "Sweethearts Dance" — to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
"The dance was entirely the effort of the Honor Society students," said Catherine Madsen, DHS English teacher and Honor Society adviser. "They planned it from start to finish, including food, decorations and set-up. COA. staff helped with clean-up. I didn’t have to do a thing."
"Honor Society is all about giving back," said president Alli Georgadarellis. "The dance is one of two major events we sponsor each year. All of our activities are to fulfill the spirit of our charter, which calls for leadership and service."
"Volunteering also shows integrity and builds character — other qualities in our charter," added society member Aron Corin.
Vice-president Wesley Lima stressed the dance was paid for entirely by DHS Honor Society bake sales, car washes and a pancake breakfast and that 30 of the Society’s 45 members took part.
"I am so impressed by the leadership of everyone involved," said Madsen.
"Since it was our first time doing this, we were all a little nervous," said Corin. "We were also very surprised at how excited the COA seniors were for us to be there."
"One lady complimented me on my dancing," said Steve Hawkins, who also dressed up as Cupid for the occasion. "I think (the students) were awed by how much the older people enjoyed themselves and by how appreciative they were."
"We can’t forget Kathy Gaspar (DHS phys ed and dance teacher)," said Madsen: "She gave lessons to the students before the dance. I should also pass along a comment I heard from a couple of ladies after the dance: ‘These young people make the Town of Dartmouth proud,’ they said, —I would concur."
"These exchanges are so important for our elders," said Nancy Miller, COA program activities coordinator. "They want so much to stay in the loop, not to become isolated. They always enjoy any opportunity to be with young people."
This school year, Rachael Dyer, a first-grade teacher, and Mia Lahti, a parent volunteer at DeMello School, introduced students to "Grandfriends," a program partially funded by a mini-grant that Lahti had applied for from United Way of Greater New Bedford Community Building Mini-Grant Project.
"For years I have been walking next door with my students to play bingo with COA Senior Day Care clients, to do spring cleaning and some planting (and) also to teach my students to be neighborly," said Dyer. "When Mia approached me with the grant idea, we immediately agreed on a bird theme for the year. Our first project was for students to make natural Christmas ornaments to hang from trees for the birds to eat."
In March, Grandfriends sponsored a program on bird songs with DeMello third-graders presented by the Lloyd Center; also that month, the Audubon Society put on a live bird show for seniors and students.
This month and next, the Grandfriends plan to expand on outdoor activities by using mini-grant funds to make birdbaths, to paint birdhouses, and possibly to build raised gardens (accessible to seniors), to plant seedlings and shrubs, and even to start a garden club with COA seniors.
People of all ages "simply enjoy learning new things, especially through productive activities with one another," says Dyer. "I know from my own grandparents that aging has its beauty but can also be isolating.
"The youngsters are enriched by the stories the seniors tell, and the seniors seem enlivened by their engagement with the children. For many children whose grandparents are gone or who live far away, the interaction with the seniors fills a void."
Written by Tom McGill (South Coast Today)