Monday May 21, 2007

Serving With Honor
Weston’s Senior Citizens Make Enduring Connections with Youth

When Irmgard Bryant, a longtime Weston resident, visited the town’s middle and elementary schools last spring to speak of her experiences in Hitler’s Germany, she wasn’t sure if she would make an impression. “I went in without much expectation, but my encounters with the students were intense,” she recalls.
Bryant, a German who left her country soon after the end of the Second World War, told youngsters of her memories from over 60 years ago, when uniformed men wearing swastikas came into her elementary school classroom to tout Germany’s superiority. “The children [in Weston] knew what a swastika was!” says the 76-year-old in amazement. “The students and teachers gave me permission to talk about it.”
Electrifying encounters with youngsters have also become the norm for George Amadon, a World War II veteran who has lived in Weston since 1946. Local middle schoolers are regularly entranced by Amadon’s first-hand battle accounts. “I flew 30 missions over Japan during the war, and I bring in exhibits like a Japanese flag and some of my medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart,” he explains.
Amadon is impressed by the youngsters’ thirst for knowledge, and their intelligent questions. “I’m a substitute teacher in the Sudbury and Waltham schools, but I don’t dare mention my war experiences, because that’s all they will want to talk about!” he laughs.
Bryant and Amadon are just two of dozens of Weston seniors who have shared their valuable wisdom, talents, and experiences with local students, thanks to an innovative program that has created lasting connections between the generations.
“Our seniors have lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and the civil rights movement,” explains Rick Wohlers, a board member of Weston’s Council on Aging (COA) and its Intergenerational Committee. “We couldn’t ask for better role models, because their generations form the bedrock of our town, state, and nation.”
The bond between the COA and the public school system was forged when a COA board member had a brainstorm. “I currently have children in Weston schools,” explains Laura Efron, chair of the COA’s Intergenerational Volunteer Committee. “We wanted to make a connection between students and seniors, because seniors have so much to offer.”
When a teacher of Efron’s son mentioned that the third-grade curriculum would be adding a unit on the town’s history, it was the opportunity for which Efron had been waiting. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if seniors could visit classrooms and talk about what life was like many years ago,” she says.
Momentum and enthusiasm took over from there. Efron got in touch with Patricia Jacobs, Weston’s social studies and science specialist for kindergarten through fifth grade.
“We have a very rich curriculum, and I didn’t want to overload teachers, so I looked for a place where the senior citizens’ experiences would fit naturally,” says Jacobs.
Fit it did. Not only do seniors visit classrooms to share their memories, but the program has expanded to make them an active part of the learning process, whether it’s reading to children, serving on a panel about immigration, participating in music sessions, or baking projects in the COA kitchen in Weston center. “Everyone has taken this concept and really flown with it, making all the right connections,” confirms Eileen Bogle, Director of the COA’s Intergenerational Committee.
Fourth-grader Max Grundy remembers one particular visit, during which longtime Westonians recalled their childhoods during the first half of the 20th century. “It was really interesting,” he says. “We learned about how they lived, like having to walk a couple of miles to get the family’s mail in Weston center. People also had to do a lot of work every day, like hunt for food, feed the animals, and grow gardens.” Grundy seems most impressed with the responsibilities given to youth of earlier eras. “The best thing I learned is how kids helped out by driving tractors at age twelve. They did it all by themselves!” he exclaims.
Similarly, in a thank-you note to volunteers, a seventh grader wrote, “It was an honor to hear about your experiences growing up during World War II. It made me very thankful to have all the freedom and choices I have today.”
Weston Middle School Principal John Gibbons is effusive in his praise of connecting the generations. “In sharing their stories, information, wisdom, wit, and humor with us, seniors help bridge the gap,” he points out. “They keep the vital link to history alive, and enable us all to be better at who and where we are now, and will be in the future.”
Wohlers, himself a veteran, has lived in Weston for three decades, and has been especially vigorous in recruiting volunteers. “The majority of our participants are in their eighties,” he notes. “Between 50 and 100 have been active in this program, and they really love it. There has been a connection at every grade level, and everyone has learned from each other.”
The elders seem to gain as much from the visits as youngsters do.
Meg Young visits a Country School first-grade class weekly to assist pupils with reading skills. “Children read books to me, and they’re very proud that they’re able to do so,” she says. “The children are terrific to be with, and they’re usually pretty good readers. I might help them with a word they’re stumbling with, but they really don’t need correcting. They just need someone to encourage them and give them faith in their abilities,” she says modestly.
When the 85-year-old Young occasionally needs to break the ice with a child, she employs the topic that has always bridged the gap between generations of New Englanders: the Red Sox.
“I’ve learned that to get to know the children, I simply ask them if they watch the Red Sox,” says the astute Young. Virtually all of the youngsters respond eagerly, but she recalls a boy who was particularly enthusiastic one day, jumping out of his chair and imitating a play from the previous evening’s game.
“This boy asked me if I’d always been a Sox fan, and I told him no, I used to live in New York,” she remembers. The boy replied that she must be a Yankees fan, and Young corrected him by saying that years ago, she rooted for the New York Giants, “not expecting that he would know who the Giants were,” she says. Much to her surprise and delight, a solemn expression came over the first-grader’s face as he said: “My father was a Giants fan, too.”
Patricia Jacobs sings the praises of classroom visits. “The elders’ contributions aren’t outside the elementary curriculum, they’re embedded in it,” she emphasizes. “Knowledge we’ve acquired from them has been the perfect tool—what is better than learning from someone who has experienced things firsthand?”
Jacobs says she deeply believes in using local resources. “Organizations like the COA have been very forthcoming and generous with their time, she reflects, and it’s worked out very well for everyone.”



© 2006 Elm Bank Media