It wasn’t long into her 12 year tenure at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School that teacher Maryel Barry conceived the idea for a club that would unite old and young alike in the bonds of friendship and respect.
“The bottom line: It is fun,” Barry says of the Grandparent Club, which she founded between 10 and 11 years ago.
Barry teaches sixth grade history and English at Mary Ellen Henderson. During her 12 years at the school, Barry considered the Grandparent Club to be one of her lasting achievements.
Barry founded the Grandparents Club on the idea that kids and seniors can learn from one another, have fun and grow as people through joint activities and social interaction. It is open to fifth, sixth and seventh grade students. While school is in session, Grandparent Club members meet twice monthly – once at the school in the middle of each month and once at the end of the month, when they visit the residents of Sunrise Senior Living of Falls Church.
During school meetings, students meet in Barry’s classroom to chat and make general notes to pass out to seniors. “We say, ‘What are we going to do next time’ and things you can talk about for next time,” says sixth grader Evelyn Leggett. The students also make cards for holidays like Halloween and Christmas. Members make personalized cards for residents with whom they have formed friendships. Students also tell each other stories about what they did during their last visit with residents, whom they met, what they learned and what plans they have for the next visit.
Barry said that both children and the seniors need attention, and thought the monthly visits to Sunrise are fun for the kids and enlivening for residents. Normally, kids distribute their handmade cards and talk with residents, but on Halloween, students dress in costumes, and in December, the club performs a holiday concert.
“When they speak to me, they share their problems,” says Barry, referring to how she interacts with Sunrise residents. She said, however, that residents come alive when they encounter the children. The students make the residents feel young again by allowing the seniors to participate with students in lively activities.
The elderly open up to the kids, Barry said. She also said that students and residents simply have fun together, which brings the older residents out of their routines and helps them to forget their daily struggles. Students will ask simple questions, Barry said, like, “What did you do for Halloween when you were little?”
“The kids are innately skilled at knowing how to communicate with the elderly,” Barry said. The kids are “tactful and gracious,” mingling with the seniors and making new friends.
Club members, like sixth grader Katherine Goodwin, enjoy finding things they have in common with residents. On one of the visits, Katherine found that she and a resident shared a love of photography.
Leggett enjoys learning new games from helpful seniors, such as a resident she knows as Mr. Wren. “He was really patient when people didn’t know things,” Leggett said about Mr.Wren when he assisted the children in learning Dominoes.
Leggett said she joined the Grandparent Club “to meet interesting people from other places that have done things I would never get to do and I can learn from their experiences.”
Fifth grader Killian Moore said she likes the history that the seniors share as they relate anecdotes about their lives. “I thought it would just be cool to go and meet people who’ve been around for such a long time and learn about history,” said Moore.
Besides their compassion, Barry said that students exhibit confidence as they mingle with and talk to residents. She is amazed that students who might not excel or be assertive in the classroom are at ease when they interact with residents. They discover they can approach others easily and are themselves approachable. These natural talents for communication and ability to empathize with diverse groups of people are traits that more timid students use to build self-confidence and self-worth. Some students even consider using their communication skills in a future career, said Barry.
On the whole, all of the students and residents benefit from their time together. Students learn from their older counterparts, and residents are invigorated by the children’s innocent enthusiasm and positive attitudes. “It is easy to do, and everyone has fun,” Barry says.
The mutual kindness and care given and received by the kids and the older people touches Barry every time she returns to Sunrise. “It’s humanity at its best,” says Barry with a smile. “It doesn’t get better than that.”