Every Wednesday six to eight fifth graders pack up their lunch trays or lunch boxes and carry them across the parking lot to New Merkel Senior Center, joining the seniors just as they are each served their hot lunch tray. Together the Vestavia Hills Elementary Cahaba Heights students play games and talk about pets or sports or what seniors remember about the area from their younger years.
And they laugh a lot too, especially with Joanne Casey, who turned 99 this year. “When they were talking about someone serving in Battle of the Bulge, (Ms. Joanne) looks over and says, ‘I battle my bulge every day,’” school counselor Cortney McKinney recounts. “She is just hilarious.”
It all started during National Random Acts of Kindness Week in February 2018. Three fifth grade classes packaged cookies, made cards and set out to walk across the parking lot to the senior center. Cortney now admits she was hesitant about the interaction. “We were concerned that (the students) might not chat or that they could be reclusive,” she recounts. But as it turns out each generation was equally interested in the other and found plenty in common even across the wide age gap. “(The students) got to know (the seniors). They played the piano for them. The seniors taught them how to play Rummikub,” Cortney recounts.
The kids loved it. The seniors were excited. The teachers left on a high and looked at each other and said, “We don’t want this to end.” It was then that a spark was lit to foster a consistent relationship there.
The fifth graders’ lunch time coincides with the seniors’ lunch time, so why not take advantage of that overlap? It didn’t matter that the students had to give up their recess that day to go to these Getting to Know You lunches. They signed up for the six open weekly slots and begged to go back again. “I think initially it’s just fun and getting out of class, but once this first group or two goes and they are begging to go back, it becomes about spending time there, which is what we are really looking for,” fifth-grade teacher Tiffany Marron says.
Elementary school students are no strangers to Alan Dane, a retired lawyer whose wife taught at Vestavia Hills Elementary East and who has tutored students himself. “Both my kids are Eagle Scouts, so I talk to them about scouts,” he tells us. “We talk about sports. We talk about my time in fifth grade and how I first developed my love of learning to read. We talk about the kind of books they like to read. You have to draw them out at first, but they open up a bit and start volunteering information.”
For Joe Brasher, it’s especially fun to share stories about when he was a student at the school the students decades his junior now attend. In 1940 he started at what was then called New Merkel School before going to Shades Valley High School. About 15 students were in his grade, as opposed to 60-plus the kids have now. “I tell them how I started here and that they called (Cahaba Heights) New Merkel back then,” he says. “I talk to them about how I enjoyed the teachers here, and how the building has been changed so much.”
The sharing goes both ways too. Last year the seniors couldn’t get over what one of the students shared with them. “We can’t believe she’s writing a book and writing it on the computer!” they kept telling New Merkel manager Melanie Perry afterward.
When the teachers alert the students that it’s almost time to leave around 12:30 p.m., it’s the seniors who speak first. “Just a few more minutes” they say. And the kids echo it back.
So it’s no surprise the seniors invited the students to their garden party and a birthday party. In turn, the students invited them in turn to their art gala—where a few seniors who attended called saw familiar students and got to oooh and ahh over their work, like any grandparent would.
These interactions also help teach the kids conversation skills. “We tell them if you are at a loss for things to say to talk about yourself because they like to hear about you and it’s an okay time to talk about yourself,” Cortney explains. “We are here not just to develop good students but to develop good citizens, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to integrate with this seniors who are at our doorstep.”
Watching all these interactions unfold makes the organizers behind it reflect too. “I was timid around senior citizens when I was their age, so to me this opens up a whole new world for them to get to know and cherish these small moments with them,” Cortney says.
Seeing the intergenerational interaction reminds Melanie of her grandparents, and that she wishes she had listened to them more. “When (these seniors) can share with these young people, maybe they can put one bit of wisdom in their lives they can reflect on,” she says. “Maybe it’s teaching them the art of listening and respecting your elders.”
For this year’s fifth grade classes, the weekly visits started in October and will run through the end of the school. This year’s class had already heard about the visits from last year, and it wasn’t hard to build momentum for the sign-up sheets. ”We tried to talk to the kids and tell them this was an opportunity for the kids to converse with the senior and get to know them,” Tiffany says.
Like last year, it will all culminate in the Rally Finale, which is essentially a graduation ceremony for the fifth graders. Last year the school had saved seats for the seniors at the big event and gave them each a rose when they walked in. “The kids just loved that,” Tiffany says. And the seniors did too. Just recalling the memory makes Melanie tear up. “It’s working,” she tells us.