Across the Generations
Across the Generations
Natalie A. Trout

For at least the past two decades, Canterbury School has had some sort of arrangement with a nursing home or senior center in Fort Wayne, giving younger students the opportunity to visit and read with the elderly. For the past three years, Canterbury has been building a relationship with Five Star Senior Living, sending groups of Grade 6 and Grade 1 students at different times.

We caught up with Religion/Service teacher Nancy Schantz to learn more about the purpose of the Grade 6 visits.

What do you do on your visits to Five Star?

In the beginning of the year we study about relationships. Then the next unit is about communication--the backbone of forming relationships with others.

Later we study what makes for good face-to-face communication. We practice employing the elements of good conversation with one another in class.

Finally, we get the opportunity in late October to visit Five Star Senior Living, have an orientation tour, and meet the volunteer residents with whom we will be paired. For the rest of the school year, we will go once a week to visit with the same resident during our class time. Each pair of students has one resident for the year. We usually go to their apartments to visit, but some visit in the library or the common areas.

How do the students react to their visits to Five Star?

I think that before our initial visits, many students are a bit nervous about conversing with adults they don't know. But they go in pairs, and even after the first visits, I am happy to say that the students typically get back on the bus talking about how great their new acquaintances are, what is interesting about them, and how excited they are to go back the next week.

As time goes on, the students seem to become quite comfortable in conversing with their new friends and really getting to know them better. They enjoy listening to stories about long ago times, telling about their activities at school, perhaps helping with crafts or projects, and sometimes volunteering to bring their musical instruments so that they can play or sing for their resident friends. Usually at the end of the school year they are very sad to say goodbye.

From what you can see, how do the residents of Five Star feel about your visits?

The resident volunteers are absolutely terrific! They are so welcoming to our students and take such an interest in them. They often tell me that the students are so well-mannered and that they are a pleasure to visit with. I know that most of the residents go out of their way to be available to fit our schedule. As well, they seem to take a very caring interest in helping our students to learn to converse better with adults, think about issues on a deeper level, and become even better listeners. I think that they also take genuine interest in hearing about the joys and concerns of each student.

Why is it important for Canterbury students to participate in something like this?

I think that this program is valuable in many ways. One goal is for our students to learn to be of service, and these visits are an opportunity to bring some sunshine to others on a regular basis. But better, I think, is learning about how to form partnerships or connections in which each party helps and learns from the other. Participating in this kind of community engagement is a life skill which should serve our students well as they encounter other opportunities for philanthropy in the years ahead. An attitude that says, "let's work on this together and learn from each other" is a powerful tool for enriching the lives of all participants, no matter what the circumstances or ages involved.

A second and somewhat related goal is that our students can learn so much from the stories and perspectives of someone in an older generation. How better to find out about what it's like to drive a jeep during war time, learn a new job skill in the days before technology, raise a large family on a very tight budget, or develop a life-long hobby such as wood-working or crocheting?

A third goal for our class is that they would be able to practice and develop their face-to-face communication skills. Our students live in a world of much remote communication, and I value this opportunity to present them with real life people and situations in which to hone their conversation skills, such as making eye contact, speaking clearly, asking open-ended questions, reflecting the other person's feelings, and directing the conversation toward the interests of the other person.