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A friend indeed

Intergenerational program at JCC enriches seniors, children

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Bubbe Dawn with her class. Daniel, with blue stripes on his sleeves, is beside her.

Watching the face of an elderly person surrounded by smiling 3-year-olds is “amazing,” says Judi Nahary. So amazing, in fact, that the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly has created a program specifically designed to multiply those interactions.

According to Ms. Nahary, director of the JCC’s senior adult services department, the joy such meetings bring both the seniors and the children explains the success of the center’s GranFriend program, which brings older visitors into the many classrooms of the JCC’s nursery program.

Working with Jo Sohinki, the director of the early childhood department – which serves some 300 youngsters – during the past year Ms. Nahary began matching members of her programs with nursery classes. Since then, GranFriends has taken on a life of its own, with increasing numbers of seniors eager to join the 10 now participating.

GranFriends are sent to classrooms with 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.

“There were requests from the younger classes, with 2-year-olds, but it would have been more challenging,” Ms. Nahary said.

GranFriends range in age from 85 to 95, and each one is assigned to a specific class. “It’s a collaborative effort,” Ms. Nahary said, noting that she and Ms. Sohinki meet regularly to discuss class schedules. Then each week the GranFriend visits their class to read a book, tell a story, or join an ongoing activity. The result, while not surprising, still is heartwarming, she said.

“A relationship forms between the kids in that class and ‘their’ senior,” she added. It’s remarkable.”

So far, seniors have been eligible to participate if only they are mobile enough to go up and down the stairs leading to the classrooms. But next year, the program will try to bring children to visit those seniors who can’t get around.

At times, some seniors “get to feel like a burden, like they’re not contributing,” she said. “But this gives them a sense of purpose, like they’re still able to do something.” Some, she said, teach the children about the Jewish holidays, or about their backgrounds in Europe, or about Jewish traditions.

The program is not one-sided. “It adds so much to the kids’ lives,” Ms. Nahary said. “And it gives them an additional level of compassion. Their own grandparents may not be as old or frail. They’re very careful with them.”

Also, she said, for some children – such as the Israeli youngsters whose grandparents are far away – this adds something special to their lives.

Recreational therapist Marlene Ceragno, who escorts the seniors to the classrooms, calls the program “amazing.

“You just can’t believe what a fabulous program this turned out to be,” she said. “The seniors feel so good, and the kids get so excited to see them. Our seniors wait in the hallway for their bus. If a class is coming or going, they call out to ‘their’ senior. It gives me goose bumps. It’s just the cutest thing.”

“It’s gained so much momentum,” she added. “More seniors are requesting GranFriends, and they ask every day if it’s their turn to visit. They also ask if we can increase the number of times they visit the classes.”

The children are so enthused about the program that some parents are very eager to meet their child’s special senior, who often is called by a special name in the class.

Rob Schirmacher of Lodi, father of 4-year-old Daniel, said, “My son doesn’t open up to people he doesn’t know, but with Bubbe Dawn, there was an instant connection. Now he has a grandma, a mima, and a bubbe.”

In fact, Mr. Schirmacher said, “the only time Daniel would speak about school is when he would share stories about Bubbe Dawn. Even during a Shabbat sing, where parents would participate, Daniel would just wave and sit with her. His brother Mikey even came to the JCC to meet her.”

Ceragno said that when teachers are excited about the program, they create additional opportunities for interaction. For example, they invite their class senior visitor to join holiday parties, field trips, and graduations.

Debbie Shenkin, one of those teachers, said that “Rabbi Z” – Rabbi Zelick Block of Englewood – “has been such a wonderful GranFriend to my class. The children enjoy listening to all his stories, and it really created a special generational bond. As a retired rabbi, Rabbi Z also brought a unique and personalized approach to teaching my class about the Jewish holidays. The children grew very fond of him and we developed a real classroom community where the children and Rabbi Z began sharing personal experiences. The GranFriend program was an amazing experience for the entire class, and both generations benefited from the visits.”

For his part, Rabbi Z was equally enthusiastic.

“When I was first approached to participate, I felt challenged because I had no idea how I was going to teach and share information with children who are almost 100 years younger than me,” he said. “But once I began visiting this lovely group of children, the experience did more for me than it did for them. It reawakened such feelings of love for children and their honesty; feelings that were always there in me, but dormant, and visiting the children in their classrooms brought those feelings back. From a physiological point of view, I think this program provides a healthy way for seniors to connect in new ways and enjoy new experiences. You can teach an old dog new tricks!”

Nursery school teacher Debbie Freesman, whose class of 3-year-olds adopted “Bubbe Dawn” last year, is equally pleased with the intergenerational program.

“Bubbe Dawn embraced the children with tremendous warmth and enthusiasm,” she said. “She visited our class weekly and participated in various activities, including hamantashen baking and story time. Her visits were filled with hugs, giggles, and an abundance of conversation. The children were fascinated by her stories and she loved listening to anything they wanted to share. At the end of the year, the children decided to donate the tzedakah funds that they collected throughout the year to the senior adult program at the JCC.”

Bubbe Dawn – aka Dawn Diamond of Fort Lee – said she “thought the whole program was a wonderful idea.

“The children were a delight to be with. Ms. Debbie, the head teacher, was a friendly person and made me feel very welcome and included in the program. I was a very good cook, but I never baked; the children taught me how to bake when we made hamantashen together for Purim. I felt very good when the children called me Bubbe Dawn and was sad when the program ended, but I’m looking forward to next fall when I’ll be Bubbe Dawn to a new class.”

GranFriend Helen Gorki of Fort Lee was very proud of her children – particularly one youngster “who reads already and does puzzles well too.

“I love the teachers; they were unbelievably nice. I like children. Without this program, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to be with children. I’m happier with the children than I am with the adults. I can’t wait till school starts to see my kids again.”

“It makes them feel like a million dollars,” Ms. Ceragno said, recalling an incident where children passing by the senior lounge came running in to greet “their” senior.

“I saw tears in his eyes,” she said. “There’s something about children that brings so much happiness and joy. We need to increase intergenerational programs.” The JCC has also begun a “Gramper/Camper” program for its young campers, she said.

“We’ve started to build on this initiative because we’ve had so much success. The program will continue and will get bigger and better.”

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