When Florence Hoffman, 76, says, "my children are very well-behaved and very intelligent," she sounds like any other Jewish grandmother, brimming with pride. But the children who call her Grandma are not related. They're fifth-graders from Wilshire Crest Elementary School, just a mile away from Freda Mohr Multipurpose Center, a Jewish Family Services senior center that Hoffman visits weekly.
For the past few weeks, these students have joined Hoffman and 10 other seniors at the Fairfax-area center to truly get to know one another. The meetings are part of a pilot program funded by the Skylark Foundation and run by youTHink, a program of the Zimmer Children's Museum. In addition to its intergenerational aspect, the program stresses intercultural connections -- this time bringing together young students of color and white Jewish seniors. The gatherings have helped the group identify and appreciate how much they have in common. For example, many participants -- old and young -- speak more than one language, were born outside the U.S. and have experienced prejudice.
The time together has also changed minds. Ten-year-old Desde Jones thought seniors were "mean, grumpy and old," but meeting Diana Chuchian, 62, toppled her beliefs. "She's nice and funny, and she understands what we're dealing with." Similarly, Sylvia Bronstein, 85, said that reading about what goes on in schools sometimes gave her a negative impression of young people. But these fifth-graders modified her view. "They looked so neat and clean. They were considerate and really sweet."
Designed to benefit both groups through conversation and connection, the program matched each senior with the same three to four students, and their bonds tightened with each session. Participants introduced themselves by sharing a funny personal story. Later, they viewed thought-provoking art to stimulate discussion about the social issues that concerned them: homelessness, poverty, gun control, animal rights, drugs and gangs. In a third session, they created their own art to express opinions about contemporary issues.
"I'm so pleased that they're enjoying my company. That makes me feel really good," said Chuchian. "It's like we don't think that kids will have the time or patience for you when you get older."
Cindy Berger, 40, the fifth-graders' teacher, agrees. "The best part is that all prejudging ideas were dispelled and it was just, 'Let me get to know you,'" she said. "There is nothing like hands-on. You can read and you can watch a video, but when you get the chance to come in and meet someone from a time period you don't know anyone from, it's really educational."
The program delivered some unexpected connections, too. On their own initiative, students drew pictures and wrote letters to bring their seniors. The adults also had a few surprises: poems, small gifts, cookies and other sweets. Feeling regret when the program ended in December, the group held its first reunion two weeks ago when the seniors attended a school assembly starring the fifth-grade class honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day. The young people were especially excited since few parents could leave work to attend. With shouts of praise and applause, the seniors did not let them down.
"The children think they derived something from being with us, but I think we derived a lot from being with this generation," said Hoffman, who was "adopted" as grandmother when she told her group of students she didn't have grandchildren of her own.
For students with grandparents often as young as 50, these seniors were some of the oldest people they'd ever met. One student asked a senior if she was 47 yet. The reply? "Honey, I'm 92!"
But as 10-year-old Javier Angulo said, "You don't have to have friends your own age."
For more information, contact youTHink at (323) 761-8988 or www.youthinkusa.org.
Excerpts of student letters:
"Dear Lillian, You are a nice lady and you talk nicely. You are a good friend. I really like you. I wish I could stay there. That place is really nice. When I grow up I am going to work there. Sincerely, Muhammad."
"Dear Florence... I enjoyed talking to you and you made me feel very welcome. I would like to know if you have grandchildren? You treated me just like my own grandmother would. ... Well keep smiling. Your friend, Tracy."
"To Diana... When I come back I hope you won't mind if I ask you a few questions, like what are your favorite desserts and more about your life? I can't wait, your friend Kaylica."