Seymour Lichtman can be found once a week in Room 311 at Silver Spring’s Eastern Middle School. He spends time there working on math and social studies, reading and writing.
The octogenarian and father of two grown children also shares much of the wisdom he has gained with his seventh-grade buddy, Daniel, a recent immigrant from El Salvador.
Mr. Lichtman, 81, of Silver Spring, and Daniel have come together through Bridges, a mentoring program that matches seniors and children of recent immigrants. The program is sponsored by Interages, a Montgomery County nonprofit agency that promotes intergenerational programs. Interages asked that the last names of the middle school participants not be disclosed.
Today, Mr. Lichtman is working with Daniel as well as with Binh, a seventh-grader from Vietnam. The group is discussing Martin Luther King and conflict resolution. Mr. Lichtman is encouraging the boys to talk, not fight, if they are provoked.
“We had it just as tough,” Mr. Lichtman, a retired Navy Department employee, says of growing up in the Depression. “I hope these boys learn to how to be gentlemen. Then being good students will come.”
Programs such as Interages are tapping one of America’s best natural resources. Today’s American retiree is better educated, healthier and living longer than ever, according to AARP. More important, nearly half of retirees plan on working or volunteering during their so-called retirement, a 2003 AARP survey found. With the average retiree living 18 years past retirement age, that leaves a lot of time to give back.
Today’s young people, many of whom live in single-parent families or far away from grandparents, are benefiting from the retirees’ volunteerism, says Barbara Newland, executive director of Interages.
“I certainly grew up near my grandparents, and I learned from them,” Ms. Newland says. “In today’s society, people may be living far from their grandparents, or their grandparents may no longer be alive. Older people still have a need to nurture and give.”
The young people involved in such programs have shown measurable benefits, says Ann Birnbaum, director of the D.C. office of Experience Corps, a national nonprofit that promotes intergenerational programs.
Experience Corps has more than 1,000 members working as tutors in 100 underserved elementary and middle schools nationwide.
A 2002 Temple University evaluation of 510 students tutored through the program showed that 69 percent of the students improved their reading level. Meanwhile, 79 percent of the 58 teachers surveyed said the participation of senior volunteers enabled them to devote more attention to non-tutored students.
“We are tapping older people as a resource,” Ms. Birnbaum says. “We are matching their time and expertise with a critical need that we have today, which is poor reading. Our schools need a lot of support.”
That need is what drew Mary Akinyemi, a retired government contract specialist in her 50s, to sign up with Experience Corps. Ms. Akinyemi, who lives in Northeast, has been working at Webb Elementary in Northeast for three years. She helps first- through third-graders with phonics, reading and math.
Ms. Akinyemi joins in as the children and seniors practice a phonics song one recent Tuesday.
“A says ah, E says eeeee,” the children shout while clapping.
“I can see the changes,” says Ms. Akinyemi, who has no children of her own. “I have learned a lot myself.”
Spanning the gap
Sometimes, there is a smaller — but still measurable — gap between the generations.
That is why Elissa Joy “E.J.” Stern, a 22-year-old student at American University, started an Adopt-a-Grandparent club at the university last year.
“I wanted to bridge the gap between students and seniors in D.C.,” says Miss Stern, who is from Montgomery, Ala. “Almost all my grandparents had passed away before I was born.”
More than 100 students have become involved with American’s Adopt-a-Grandparent club since its inception, says Miss Stern, who adds she was surprised by the turnout.
The group has teamed up with the nearby Friendship Terrace Retirement Community. The seniors and college students have held social events such as bingo nights and a Thanksgiving feast. Students also are matched with individual residents for one-on-one visits and outings.
Miss Stern says her adopted grandmother, Grace Savage, “is just wonderful.”
“We discuss everything under the sun,” Miss Stern says. “She is a nice, nice woman. She cooked for me. She is from the South, too, so we talk about what that is like.”
The events of the past couple of years — September 11, terrorism, war in Iraq — got Miss Stern thinking about what life was like for previous generations. She started the Adopt-a-Grandparent club hoping to get reflection and inspiration from the seniors.
“Connecting with the older generation is important,” she says. “We are hearing about Vietnam and World War II from them — about what they think and how they moved on after such events.
“One elderly man talked about his World War II experience at the Thanksgiving feast. He said he was so grateful for this country. A lot of students these days are so disgruntled. He reflected to see how wonderful our country really is.”
Over at Wheaton’s Kennedy High School, seniors and teens are talking, too. Interage’s Dialogues program has been going on at Kennedy for almost a decade.
At the Dialogues meetings, high school students and senior citizens break up into small groups to share perspectives on contemporary issues, says Greg Bowman, director of Kennedy’s Leadership Training Institute.
“It is usually very enlightening,” Mr. Bowman says. “I can see growth on both ends. We’ve talked about the changing American family, the death penalty, interracial relationships and all different issues that come up.”
‘A two-way street’
Back at Eastern Middle School, James McMann, a former lawyer, and 13-year-old Joaquin, from El Salvador, are discussing conflict resolution and doing homework.
Mr. McMann, who lives in Chevy Chase and has been working with Bridges for about a year, says the program “is a two-way street.”
“It helps them understand our culture, and we can learn from theirs,” he says.
Many of the Bridges sessions are centered on holidays and other events that mark the American calendar. The volunteers help teach the newer Americans about what they are celebrating, marking or protesting.
“Take Thanksgiving,” Mr. McMann says. “It is second nature to Americans. These kids may celebrate, but they don’t know the reason. This is an increasingly changing society.”
Over at Webb Elementary, Genevive Mathis is preparing to work on phonics with a first-grader. Mrs. Mathis says she has three grown children, five grandchildren and the time to give back. She has been working with Experience Corps for three years.
“My first year was exciting,” Mrs. Mathis says. “I had third-graders. They didn’t know how to spell ‘want.’ We played math games, worked on reading. One of them sent me a card at the end of the year, thanking me for helping them. I cried. I had no idea I reached that kid.”
“THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS: ADULT MENTORS, URBAN YOUTH, AND THE NEW VOLUNTEERISM,” BY MARC FREEDMAN, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1999. THIS BOOK EXPLORES HOW SENIOR MENTORS IN SEVERAL ORGANIZATIONS HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE FOR AT-RISK YOUTH.
“THE CREATIVE AGE: AWAKENING HUMAN POTENTIAL IN THE SECOND HALF OF LIFE,” BY GENE COHEN, QUILL, 2001. THIS BOOK, BY A GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY GERONTOLOGIST, EMPHASIZES THAT THE LATER YEARS CAN BE ONES OF CREATIVE AND INTELLECTUAL GROWTH. THE KEY TO ACHIEVING THAT GOAL IS STAYING ENGAGED AND ACTIVE.
AARP, 601 E ST. NW, WASHINGTON, DC 20049. PHONE: 800/424-3410. WEB SITE: WWW.AARP.ORG. THIS NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION HAS ARTICLES ABOUT COMMUNITY SERVICE PROGRAMS AND INTERGENERATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES. AARP HAS AN ONLINE VOLUNTEER RECRUITMENT TOOL THAT MAKES IT EASY TO LOCATE AND SIGN UP FOR MENTORING PROGRAMS.
THE NONPROFIT NATIONAL MENTORING PARTNERSHIP (WWW.MENTORING.ORG) HAS INFORMATION ON MENTORING OPPORTUNITIES ON ITS WEB SITE.
BIG BROTHERS BIG SISTERS (WWW.BBBSA.ORG), THE OLDEST AND LARGEST NONPROFIT YOUTH MENTORING ORGANIZATION IN THE COUNTRY, WELCOMES SENIORS AS MENTORS.
EVERYBODY WINS (WWW.EVERYBODYWINS.ORG) IS A NATIONAL NONPROFIT GROUP THAT BRINGS VOLUNTEERS INTO SCHOOLS FOR ONE-ON-ONE TUTORING IN READING.
AMERICA’S PROMISE (WWW.AMERICASPROMISE.ORG), THE NATIONAL NONPROFIT DEVOTED TO IMPROVING THE LIVES OF AMERICA’S YOUTHS, HAS OPPORTUNITIES AND IDEAS FOR ADULTS OF ALL AGES TO GET INVOLVED TO HELP YOUNG PEOPLE.