- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

Nicole Carty of Fairfax has many older friends. As a fifth-grade student at Merritt Academy in Fairfax, Nicole takes part in intergenerational activities with residents at Sunrise of Fairfax, an assisted-living home.

Along with her classmates, Nicole, 10, has been reading the book “Because of Winn-Dixie” by Kate DiCamillo to seniors at the community.

“They really like listening to the book,” Nicole says. “They like to interact with us. We like reading to them. Even though some of them can’t read, we can read to them. So they still get the same feeling.”

Nicole’s activity group is part of a larger campaign by Walden Media to excite youths about reading. It also promotes Walden’s new feature film “Because of Winn-Dixie,” which is based on the best-selling book.

Because the story’s main character, India Opal Buloni, reads “Gone with the Wind” to her elderly companion, executives at Walden Media are hoping the character’s example will inspire children to love reading and form relationships with seniors.

Besides the visits from Merritt Academy students at Sunrise of Fairfax, other local intergenerational programs were held in the past few weeks at Brighton Gardens of Arlington, Sunrise of Falls Church and Sunrise at Bluemont Park in Arlington. The Virginia programs served as pilots for other activities taking place across the country among schools, youth organizations and Sunrise centers.

Walden Media has partnered with Sunrise Senior Living, with its 370 communities in the United States, aiming to bring young and old together, says Randy Testa, vice president of education and professional development at the entertainment company. He holds a doctorate in teaching, curriculum and learning environments.

Free screenings of the movie are being provided to a number of schools, youth organizations and seniors, Mr. Testa says. A free activity guide also is available for teachers to use in the classroom. It contains six lessons structured according to national education standards. It also features sections about the author and the film.

“Hopefully, the movie will lead children to the book, and the book will help kids to be lifelong readers,” Mr. Testa says. “We’ve tried to put a program together that celebrates reading literature.”

Reading for fun correlates with academic achievement and curiosity, says Irv Katz, president of the National Collaboration for Youth in Northwest. The nonprofit organization, which oversees 50 national youth agencies, including Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army, YMCA and YWCA, has joined with Walden Media and Sunrise Senior Living to support intergenerational activities as after-school programs.

“It’s all about getting kids to read good books and to be more discriminating in the movies they watch,” Mr. Katz says. “We want to engage kids in reading the book, seeing the movie and talking about life lessons.”

Interacting with seniors while improving reading skills is like a living history lesson, says Toni L. Crouch, executive director of Merritt Academy. She is pleased the students are able to interact with people from a different generation.

“They speak to someone who grew up in a different place and time,” Ms. Crouch says. “They talk to someone who didn’t have hip-hop and TV. They danced to big bands.”

Reading to seniors at Sunrise of Fairfax reminds many of the students of their grandparents, says John Kneisley of Arlington, 11, a fifth-grade student at Merritt Academy. Although both his grandfathers have died, John says he enjoys reading “The Wizard of Oz” with his grandmother.

“It’s a good opportunity to give them happiness,” John says. “It makes them feel like they are in the fifth grade again, and they are enjoying the book with us.”

Being generous in spending time with other people is a lesson 11-year-old Diana Daley of Annandale learned through reading to the seniors. She is a fifth-grade student at Merritt Academy.

“Giving to other people is a good thing,” Diana says. “They like seeing us because we’re young. My grandfather is 93. I want to live to be 100.”

Because most residents at Sunrise communities see their grandchildren intermittently, spending time with the students is truly valued, says Ingrid Moore, activities and volunteer coordinator at Sunrise of Fairfax.

“They feel like they are part of their grandchildren’s lives through these children,” Mrs. Moore says. “They appreciate the energy of youth. Every time the students come over, one resident always says, ‘Oh, to be that age again.’ ”

In fact, intergenerational activities between Merritt Academy and Sunrise of Fairfax existed before students started reading “Because of Winn-Dixie,” Mrs. Moore says. Therefore, Walden Media’s program fit perfectly with the school’s goals.

For instance, on Fridays, the residents at Sunrise of Fairfax have a chance to hold the babies from Merritt Academy, which works with infants through eighth-graders. The older children routinely share their school projects and reports with the people at the home. Sometimes the students play games, perform skits or read to the seniors.

Watching the children as they read can be as entertaining as listening to the story, says Brenda Hoppock, a 55-year-old resident at Sunrise of Fairfax. She has lived in the community for almost three years.

“When they read a sentence, sometimes they giggle or make motions with their hands,” Ms. Hoppock says. “If they are nervous about a part, they get wiggly in their seats. They are cute kids.”

Reading out loud teaches the children good manners, says Millie Clotzman, 71, a four-year resident at Sunrise of Fairfax.

“The fact that they can read, and do it so well, is a pleasure,” Mrs. Clotzman says. “It makes you feel real good.”

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