Almanac

Schools - May 29, 2013

Learning and giving: a two-way street for local kids and seniors

by Renee Batti

Karen Rynewicz teaches fourth-graders in a school that's among the highest-achieving in the state. It's located in a town steeped in wealth, inhabited by more holders of doctorates and master's degrees, proportionally, than most communities in the country.

Yet Ms. Rynewicz knows well that, despite the educational advantages of attending a school like Corte Madera in Portola Valley, the highest level of learning depends on extending classroom walls beyond the enviably equipped campus. For the past eight years, she and parent volunteers have shepherded her students every month to Lytton Gardens senior community in Palo Alto, where the kids work with 10 residents — interviewing them for an oral history project, performing musical programs for them, and otherwise forming friendships with them.

The program won a J. Russell Kent Award in 2007, an honor presented by the San Mateo County School Boards Association to recognize outstanding teachers and programs. The award, Ms. Rynewicz said, was for best class project in the county. "The program benefits so many people," she said, adding that she hopes she will be able to continue it indefinitely.

The apparent benefits to the Lytton Garden residents are many. Participation is by sign-up, and during the students' first visit of the school year, two students each are paired with one senior.

Each month, the kids engage their "senior buddies" in a range of activities; for example, there's bingo on some visits; on Valentine's Day, they passed out flowers; and in May, they catered a luncheon — each student duo asking their senior friend what he or she would like to eat, then serving it forth, often preparing it themselves.

The students also have packed along iPads to teach their older friends how to use them. Many seniors with arthritis have a hard time with desktop keypads, but can use iPad touch pads easily, Ms. Rynewicz said. Last year, the students raised money to buy an iPad for the residents, and this year's class is hoping to do the same, she said.

But while the seniors get lessons on how to use an iPad, the kids get lessons on life. That's in large part because a key component of the program is collecting oral histories. The students gather information about the lives of their senior partners through interviews and a questionnaire, then write their biographies.

Being with her senior buddy has made "life more open for me," says student Brisa Vaughan, who with Tess Gabrielson is paired with Lorraine Congdon, who at 95 is the oldest participant in the program and the only one who has participated all eight years of its existence.

For the May luncheon, Brisa and Tess presented a vase of roses to Ms. Congdon. They were pink and white, her favorite colors. "We love her — she's so sweet," Brisa said of her senior friend. "And I love them," Ms. Congdon said, beaming.

In an email she wrote after the luncheon, Brisa said: "It has changed my life to learn and be with (Lorraine) because ... she never gives up on life and just keeps trying. She just kind of taught me to never give up ... ."

Before participating in the program, Brisa said, she had always "been worried around elderly people." But after spending time with the seniors, she has learned that older people "are not that different than my friends and I. ... My friends used to be a little afraid ... but now they are OK around the old people. It reminds me of how a lot of people are scared of homeless people, and don't make eye contract, or try not to notice them.

"I guess being with Lorraine has made me not so afraid of people that are different than me."

In June, on their final visit to Lytton Gardens for the school year, the students will present the seniors with their biographies and perform a musical program, Ms. Rynewicz said.

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