Intergenerational volunteering works wonders

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Recreation staff at Winnipeg’s Misericordia Place, a 100-bed personal care home, were looking for a new way to invigorate their elderly charges. Sid Williamson, a local elementary school teacher, was searching for a meaningful volunteer opportunity for her combined grade 4-6 class.

It turned out to be an award-winning match, now going into its fourth year. Williamson’s Ecole Laura Secord School students are prepped annually by Misericordia recreation and volunteer staff about the atmosphere of a nursing home – what they will see, hear and smell – and what it will be like visiting with seniors. “It’s not about you,” Williamson is fond of saying: “It’s about the residents.”

Lita Lopez, a student of Williamson’s, wasn’t sure what to expect when she first came to Misericordia Place at age nine. Now, at age 12, she’s a seasoned volunteer. “I really enjoy it,” she says of her monthly visits. “We do crafts together, perform dance or musical pieces … read stories.”

Students also play games with residents and have learned to be adaptable when a senior has lost some hearing, eyesight or motor control. Although most of the time the students spend with residents is structured, there is also time just for chatting. “We tell them about our day,” says Lopez, “And we listen to their interesting stories. “Even if we might hear the same story again and again, we know it’s important enough to be remembered,” she says insightfully.

Williamson says her students are getting an education they couldn’t get from textbooks.

“They’ve learned stories about why people have come to Canada in the first place and they understand a little bit better about aging and the nature of giving and being patient with someone else.

“[The students] absolutely love it,” she adds. “They’ve gotten quite connected to the residents. Shy children have become comfortable sitting beside the resident and reading stories … often it is the shiest students who make the deepest connection.”

The students are split into three groups – one for each floor – and establish relationships with residents throughout the school term. Lopez’s latest partner is resident Earl Cusitar, who is passionate about the harmonica. She sometimes accompanies him on the piano. “He remembers living with his dad as a young boy and playing with neighbourhood children who were Chinese,” she recounts, “He also played the harmonica in an army band.” Cusitar enjoys Lopez’s company and often compliments Lopez on her reading.

For the Misericordia residents, having young children in their midst is a breath of fresh air. And for students who don’t have grandparents close by, it’s a welcome connection. The students debrief after each outing to Misericordia Place. “Everyone in the class finds the trips to Misericordia exciting,” says Lopez. “We always talk about how rewarding it feels when they tell us stories about their childhood.”

Williamson’s class has another reason to celebrate. They recently won the Winnipeg Mayor’s Volunteer Service Award. “We all went to the ceremony,” remembers Lopez. “Everybody was so excited when they announced our class!”

Misericordia Place plans to continue the successful intergenerational volunteering for years to come.

The next project on the planning block for Williamson’s class is to create an enormous world wall map and to not only put pins on the countries the seniors have visited, but also to create postcards of the countries the students are studying in geography class to share with the residents.

Now that will no doubt lead to lively conversations.

For more information, please visit www.misericordia.mb.ca.