Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Hey, check it out. A newspaper story about Nana. Both Nana and Papa Teddy do a lot of volunteer work. They are good examples for all of us.

Never too old to learn, never too young to teach
Knowledge moves across generations through Interages
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
by Fred Lewis

Staff Writer
The world in which Patricia Strongin grew up couldn’t be more different than that of the youngsters she mentors at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring.

School life, home life, pop culture, politics, music — almost everything — has changed since she graduated high school in 1955.

But instead of letting those differences form a barrier between the older and the younger generations, Strongin chooses to make connections with youngsters through Interages, a Wheaton-based nonprofit that is celebrating its 20th year of pairing senior citizens with school-aged children in a variety of interactive intergenerational programs.

‘‘In my first two years [of volunteering], it was a real feeling of being helpful to someone who really appreciated the attention she got,” said the Washington, D.C., resident. ‘‘And I felt I was dealing with a very important issue in the country today.”

One of nearly 200 Interages volunteers, Strongin, who is in her 60s, ‘‘was in the market for doing some volunteer work” three years ago when a friend recommended the program. Strongin had volunteered before, but took on administrative roles. This time she wanted to work with children one-on-one. The Interages program seemed perfect.

‘‘So I called immediately and offered my services,” Strongin said.

Early beginnings

Over the past 20 years, hundreds of volunteers like Strongin have enlisted in the Interages program, drawn by positive word-of-mouth and also by the same interest founder Austin Heyman had in connecting the generations through a variety of creative programs.

‘‘Seniors derive enormous benefit from connections with young people. They bring experience and wisdom, but they can also learn from the younger generation,” Heyman said. ‘‘Both generations are giving and receiving. I saw that happening and the need is only growing.”

The program grew out of a county effort in 1986 to establish intergenerational programs, something in which Heyman and Charles Gilchrist, the county executive at the time, shared an interest, Heyman said. From that interest, the Montgomery County Intergenerational Resource Center was created, and Interages won the contract to operate it.

As part of the center’s mission, the program hosted workshops, published a newsletter and gave technical assistance to organizations, individuals and schools that wanted to create intergenerational programs. It also created model programs, such as an intergenerational discussion program called Closing the Gap, which was implemented in home economics classes and worked to dispel stereotypes by focusing on family life, parenting and changes in marriage patterns, according to the organization’s Web site.

Some programs ended over the years. But others, like Project SHARE, which brings children of all ages to adult daycare centers and assisted living facilities for shared activities, have continued.

‘‘The major change [in the past 20 years] is we’re helping more children and using more seniors,” Heyman said. ‘‘The more we can reach, the more we can help.”

‘‘We’re always looking for new programs,” said Barbara Newland, executive director of Interages for the past four years. ‘‘We’re in 25 schools and work closely with teachers and work with Linkages to Learning and the Boys and Girls Club. We listen to people when they say, ‘We need this.’”

Debbie Sekuler, a second-grade teacher at Darnestown Elementary School in Gaithersburg, has been involved with Interages over the past 15 years, most recently in the past three years with Project SHARE, or Students Help and Reach Elders.

Sekuler likes the program because Interages ‘‘[does] the footwork, the initial calls to find nursing homes that would allow kids to visit monthly,” she said. ‘‘We just provide the kids.”

Heyman said the benefits for the seniors can be profound.

‘‘I went to a group home with second-graders and one of the residents there had been a teacher, but she had Alzheimer’s. Someone asked, ‘Can you read to these kids?’ And she did for five minutes. For five minutes she was her old self and everyone was astounded,” Heyman said. ‘‘We turned an assisted living facility into an education facility for those few minutes. ... When those moments come, you feel awfully good.”

Challenges and success

Interages faces the challenges of small nonprofits: finding funding, recruiting and retaining volunteers and providing transportation.

In 1986, the program had a budget of $75,000 and two part-time employees. Today, Interages has a $385,000 budget and has a staff of nine, six of whom are part time. Funding comes from county contracts, corporate donations and individual contributions. While there are other nonprofits that offer mentoring and tutoring programs, Newland said there always will be competition. But she doesn’t see that as a drawback.

‘‘Everyone [who seeks funding for nonprofit organizations] is competing for money, and there [are] only so many foundations and donors. But if you’re doing a good program, you will find funding. So I don’t find that problematic.”

Success is measured by evaluations from teachers, surveys, budget growth and participation.

‘‘We’re really proud that we’ve nearly doubled the number of children served” and continue to add programs, Newland said.

‘‘What has stayed true is the intergenerational piece, that’s very important to us,” Newland said. ‘‘I think, from my perspective, the neatest thing about this agency is that it’s been around for 20 years and working with children and seniors. That’s something to be proud of.”

An ‘enlivening’ experience

Strongin, a woman with a lot of life experiences to offer, chose the Intergenerational Bridges program.

‘‘I was a teacher at one time, so certainly those experiences in terms of anything that dealt with homework would be helpful. I have children and nine grandchildren, so I have a lot of experience with children, and I traveled a lot and have sensitivities to other cultural values, and that could be helpful to children from other cultures that have to adapt to another way of life [in America].”

She also speaks Spanish, which is particularly useful this year as she mentors a girl from Mexico in a program that pairs newly arrived immigrant children in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes with mentors who help guide them through the transition to United States culture, language acquisition and personal development.

‘‘These children don’t have any historical experience with American culture,” Strongin said. ‘‘This is a good way to expose them to that and give them a taste of American culture they never had.”

For Strongin, Interages offered an opportunity to allow her to share her knowledge while learning about culture. But more importantly, she said the program made her feel she made a difference in someone’s life.

‘‘I think I learned, or it reinforced a belief I had that a one-on-one relationship between older and younger people can be very rich and worthwhile both,” she said. ‘‘It’s very enlivening.”

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