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Friends Preschool forges intergenerational bonds

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The two teams were evenly matched when they got into position on either side of the makeshift volleyball net. Some participants jumped up easily to hit the ball, others played from their wheelchairs. Team members with breathing tubes shouted words of encouragement while spectators snapped pictures or saved the oversized, lightweight plastic ball from hitting a player’s IV. Some players were immersed in the action. Others seemed content just to be sitting on the court.

Just an ordinary day at Camp Run-A-Muk, a whirlwind week of activities that took place for the Friends Care Community residents May 12–16. What passes for ordinary, however, is actually quite extraordinary. The volleyball participants included kids from Friends Preschool, which is housed inside the nursing home.

“It’s a very unique situation,” said Brenda Noble, early childhood director for Greene County Educational Service Center.

In May, Friends Preschool was recognized as a national finalist for the Intergenerational Shared Site Best Practices Award. The award was given by Generations United, a national organization that honors exemplary practices in building mutually beneficial relationships among people of different generations.

The idea of combining these two groups came to Noble back in 2000 when she was assessing the needs of two underserved populations in the county: elders and children with disabilities. She was looking at potential sites in the area to relocate a special education preschool when she learned that Friends Care had just built its Assisted Living facility.

“I got on the Internet and read about the agency and their philosophy and thought it sounded a lot like ours,” Noble said. “They have residents with disabilities. I have children with disabilities. We both have diverse populations. We both talk about nurturing the human spirit.”

A bond was soon forged between the two agencies and the two groups they serve.

“The kids are entrenched in the residents’ lives because we’re a part of the environment,” explained Millie Archer, Friends Preschool special education teacher. “We walk and scream and run up and down the halls like kids. We’re comfortable in the environment. We’ll tell the kids, ‘Shhh, it’s two o’clock, and some people may be taking a nap,’ or ‘Let’s go visit the elders while they’re at breakfast.’ A key piece of it for me is seeing that the kids have a high comfort level.”

Archer and her staff see to it that the residents are equally comfortable by fostering interactions that happen naturally. “If an elder drops something and we’re walking by,” said Archer, “we’ll ask the child, ‘Can you help pick that up for Jim because he can’t get down?’ It’s kind of a ‘They need us, we need each other’ kind of thing.”

FCC resident Jean Huston fosters a comfortable interaction by reading to the children. “It’s wonderful,” said Huston, a former school librarian. “I love to read and they’re great about listening.”

Eileen Pickenpaugh feels lucky to have a room located directly across from the preschool. “I think they’re fun,” laughed Pickenpaugh, recalling the children’s antics. “I like being down here where they are. They’re very friendly.”

Frances Hill adapted very quickly to her half-pint housemates and has since developed a special relationship with one of them, Zoe Evans.
“She’s so sweet,” Hill said. “Every time she sees me she’ll come over. It means a lot to me.”

Hill and Evans are part of a special program, developed by Friends Preschool Teacher’s Assistant Mary Beth Burkholder that pairs up a preschooler with a resident. “A lot of these couplings have developed into really nice friendships,” Burkholder said. “We go to the resident’s room and chat or sing songs, or the resident might read a story to the child. Sometimes we’ll take the resident out for a stroll around the building and look at the fish or the birds.”

Not all of the pairings have been so successful. “Sometimes you start out, and part way through the year the resident might take a turn for the worse and not be able to continue the relationship,” Burkholder said. In one case the resident had died.

“When we first talked about combining the two groups, we had this whole plan in mind how we were going to talk to the kids about death and dying and people in wheelchairs,” Noble said. Then they discovered the talk was unnecessary. “We just go with it as it flows,” she said.

Noble tells the story of an elderly resident with dementia who was stationed in her wheelchair at the facility’s front door. A preschooler waiting for the bus climbed up on her lap and asked, “What are you doing?” The resident responded, “I’m waiting for my mommy.” The little girl said, “I’m waiting for my mommy, too.”

“What I see is the sweetness of how the kids look at these folks and talk to them,” said Archer. “They find a unique bond that happens naturally. And that is the essence of why we’re here. When I look at Frances and Zoe, there’s a kindness about it. For example, Zoe wears hearing aids. Frances knows that and gets close to talk to her. You just don’t know what goes on beyond our roles and how these people are meeting the emotional needs of the kids.”

And vice versa. When Esther P. Miller died in March of last year, her family included a special mention in the obituary. It read, “As a resident of Friends Care, Esther was enriched in her later life by her association with the children of the preschool at Friends Care, in particular her ‘preschool buddy,’ Katie.”

Such is an ordinary day at the extraordinary Friends Preschool.

* The writer is a freelance contributor to the News.

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