January 27, 2012

2012 Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Sacred connections: Students’ outreach creates special bond with senior citizens

During a visit to the Franklin United Methodist Community, St. Rose of Lima students Nate Fries, left, and Ethan Sullivan bring smiles to senior citizens as they use large, foam sticks to bounce balloons around the activity room. (Submitted photo)

During a visit to the Franklin United Methodist Community, St. Rose of Lima students Nate Fries, left, and Ethan Sullivan bring smiles to senior citizens as they use large, foam sticks to bounce balloons around the activity room. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

FRANKLIN—Ryan Long and Sarah Barnard shared the same feeling of being nervous and overwhelmed as they entered the Franklin United Methodist Community for senior citizens with the other students.

The two eighth-grade students from St. Rose of Lima School in Franklin hadn’t had the opportunity in their young lives to interact with senior citizens who have Alzheimer’s disease. So school counselor Nikki Kirch thought the experience could help the fifth- through eighth-graders make a difference to the senior residents. She also hoped the experience would make an impact on the students.

At 13, Sarah wasn’t sure what to expect when she and a few friends sat at a table with a group of grandmothers.

“It was difficult at some points,” Sarah said in recalling the visit in November of 2011. “I don’t have grandparents who have Alzheimer’s. One of them couldn’t remember the names of her grandchildren. That made me sad.”

Her mood started to change when she began a conversation with a talkative woman who is 106.

“The two of us just talked and talked, and we ended up laughing together,” Sarah said with a smile. “By the end, I enjoyed just being able to talk to them and know we were making them feel better.”

For Ryan, the ice breaker moment in the two-hour visit came when he was part of an interactive game with the residents. The students and the senior citizens bounced balloons around the activity room, keeping the balloons in the air by hitting them with large, foam sticks.

“At first, it was an overwhelming experience, but when we began the game, I saw the smiles on their faces,” said Ryan, 13. “It was like they were getting their inner-kid out. It was a lot of fun. By the end, the experience seemed rewarding for all of us.”

While community service for students has always been a significant focus at St. Rose of Lima School, the visit with the senior citizens who have Alzheimer’s disease was also designed to lead the students to a deeper understanding of their faith.

“We spent all of October talking about the value and sacredness of life,” said Estelle Britner, eighth-grade teacher at St. Rose School. “We talked a lot about babies, but most of them don’t have the experience of seeing older people being sick. This let us talk about the sacredness of life at both ends of life.”

The visits also offered the students the opportunity to look beyond the images they had of the senior citizens, and personally connect with them.

“It was an eye-opener for the kids to see that these aren’t people they should be afraid of,” Britner said. “One of the ladies told the kids that her grandson is playing volleyball in college so our volleyball players were excited about that. And one of the women said her grandson was playing football in college so our football players were excited about that. The whole experience was great for so many of the kids.”

That result was also true for the senior citizens, according to Jack Cronin, activities director at Franklin United Methodist Community.

“The residents talked about the visit for days,” Cronin said. “The students exercised with them, and they were singing songs and playing games with balloons and a parachute. About a week after the final visit, we got about 25 to 30 cards from the students. We passed them out, and the residents really cherished those cards. We’re looking forward to doing it again.” †

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