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Senior citizens, youngsters learn from each other through intergenerational program

Sophie Pederson, left, a Senior Friend, helps second-grader Caleb Woltjer with a craft project May 10 at the Willmar Community Center. Twice a month for 15 years, Robin Isaacson has been taking her class to the Community Center as part of an intergenerational learning program. Photo By Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The second and fourth Friday mornings of every month during the school year were special for Robin Isaacson's second-graders at Roosevelt Elementary School.

The mornings were also special for senior citizens at the Willmar Community Center.

At those 10 o'clock gatherings, the chatty youngsters filed off the bus with pencil boxes in hand and into the Community Center. They'd grab their name tags and eagerly join a handful of older adults for an hour and half of intergenerational activities and projects.

"We get a mix of the generations,'' says Isaacson. "We have the older people and the younger people, and lot of which don't have grandparents around here or live by their grandparents. It's a great way just for the generations to mix and get together.''

During one May session, the 22 students sat four or five to a table with an adult. Speaking over the public address system, Isaacson quiets the kids and explains the morning's activities and projects.

The students first take turns reading to the adults, followed by some coloring. Then one student from each table brings over a small bowl of skim milk, and a couple of kids at each table carefully squeeze two drops of food coloring at strategic locations into the bowl from three small bottles representing the three primary colors.

Then Isaacson tells the students to not stir or touch the bowls while the youngsters turn their attention to the next project, which was making flower baskets out of egg cartons to give their mothers for Mother's Day.

After they finish the basket project, the students look at the bowls and see the experiment has created various hues in the milk. The session ends with refreshments and the kids returning to school.

Isaacson has been bringing her class to the Community Center for 15 years. Now, after 34 years of teaching, which include 30 in Willmar, Isaacson was retiring from teaching. The May 24 session would be bittersweet.

"That will be a very sad time, I think,'' she said.

Isaacson got the idea for the intergenerational program when she was working on her master's degree. She needed a project and thought she'd like to do something with older people.

Isaacson connected with LeAnne Freeman, city leisure services supervisor, who also wanted to do something similar at the Community Center.

"It just worked out really well. The children bring such a fresh outlook on everything we do,'' said Isaacson. "They're so happy. Everything's so exciting. So I think that's nice for the seniors. It is for me. Everything's so positive with them and that's nice for all of us adults.''

Isaacson said some projects are related to the curriculum and some are seasonal.

"But they have a purpose because the children and seniors can communicate. The children learn so much from the seniors,'' she said. "The adults really learn from the children, too.''

Tristan Hirschman was one of the busy students. Besides doing projects, he liked the field trip to the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum "with that big train'' parked outside.

"We went here all the days that we came here, which is a long time. It's really fun doing all the activities with everyone,'' he said.

Freeman says some students and seniors remain in contact.

"I always tell the seniors after the first time we meet that you'll probably run into these kids in the store or grocery store or wherever they're out and about. They might come up to you and say, I know you, and if the parents are with them, always make sure you introduce yourself to the parents so they know what's going on,'' Freeman advised.

Isaacson thinks the experience will stay with the students.

"It started as kind of a wish and it's grown into something semi-permanent for us but hopefully permanent for them. I think there is so much we can learn from older people. They have a lifetime of values and experiences that nobody else has and each is unique. It's a wonderful mix. I'll miss teaching. I'll miss the kids.''

Jim Collier says he often thought that kids who are high school seniors now should be invited back. He said the program has been fun and the kids are busy.

"And it keeps us going,'' he said. "One of the sweetest things I had was last time we went on a tour of the historical society. One of the little girls held my hand the whole way. It gets you in the heart.''

Shirley Hulst has been part of the program for almost 15 years.

"My children don't live around here anyplace and it's been so great to be able to do things with young people and they are so alive, which makes me alive,'' she said.

Hulst attends the same church with one girl who is now in middle school.

"I know her real well and everytime she sees me, she says, 'I wish I could go back there again.' ''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150