2016-05-13 / Front Page

Building a bridge to ‘lifelong learning’

Elder Leominster residents foster friendships with elementary students
By Christine Smith


Left, fourth-grader Abigail Matthews demonstrates Taekwondo to adult volunteer John Diggins and her classmates Rahim Rashid and Renee Comeau. Above, senior volunteer MaryAnne Capistrano gets a kick out of Irish step dancing being taught by Johnny Appleseed fourth grader Cassie Townsend, fourth from left. Fellow students Jacob Jeon, left, Matt Dietz, second from left, and Nina Marchetti, third from left, join in. Left, fourth-grader Abigail Matthews demonstrates Taekwondo to adult volunteer John Diggins and her classmates Rahim Rashid and Renee Comeau. Above, senior volunteer MaryAnne Capistrano gets a kick out of Irish step dancing being taught by Johnny Appleseed fourth grader Cassie Townsend, fourth from left. Fellow students Jacob Jeon, left, Matt Dietz, second from left, and Nina Marchetti, third from left, join in. Fourth-grader Isabelle Keller was carefully weaving the green yarn around Bob Marchetti’s finger as she recited the steps needed to create a finger-knitted bracelet. The smiles that lit up both faces, as student and adult worked together, were unmistakable.

Mr. Marchetti gave a laugh, “I’ll be moving on to sweaters tomorrow! I got this down pat now.”

Marchetti and his wife Mary are among 14 seniors who in recent weeks have been visiting students on Tuesday mornings at Johnny Appleseed Elementary School on Main Street in North Leominster. Call them volunteers, but from all appearances the visits go beyond that to budding friendships with the young fourth-graders at the school.


Christine Smith photos Christine Smith photos This particular day, everyone had something to teach to the others. So, they broke off into their usual groups of one or two adults and a small number of students and began taking turns demonstrating skills and sharing techniques.

It was in one corner of fourth-grade teacher Gretchen Hummon’s classroom that the Marchettis were enjoying their knitting class.

“It has been very enlightening,” remarked Mrs. Marchetti with a smile. “The children are great. They listen to everything you say and they’ve got a lot to teach us — that’s for sure.”

She added, “It’s a really wonderful program — it really is.”

Across the room, adult John Diggins was kicking out alongside students Rahim Rashid and Renee Comeau as fourth-grader Abigail Matthews coached them in Taekwondo skills.

Nearby, senior MaryAnne Capistrano laughed as she and students Matt Dietz, Nina Marchetti and Jacob Jeon tried their hands at Irish step dancing, with the help of their classmate Cassie Townsend.

“The experience has been very positive,” said Capistrano, who said the thought of committing six consecutive weeks was a bit daunting for some of the seniors at first. But, she said, the experience they have had has been “very positive” for all who have been coming each week.

It has been less than a month that Hummon and fellow fourth-grade teacher Tina Lelli began piloting the intergenerational program at their school called “Bridges Together,” designed to encourage elementary students, in this case the fourth-graders, to interact with older adults in the community. Both believe the young children should have that connection with older adults, and they have been thrilled with the initial results of the six-week program that will end on June 7.

“So far it has been an absolutely wonderful experience that the kids really look forward to,” commented Hummon. “They’re developing relationships with these fabulous volunteers. We just feel so lucky to be a part of the Bridges program.”

“They love it, they love it, they love it,” stressed Lelli as she scanned the activities going on in the room around her. She said there was initial apprehension among students about working with those unfamiliar to them and who were older, but this has since given way to clear enjoyment.

“The stereotype of old people — that’s what’s being broken here,” said Lelli, who also noted that some of the students, including two who relocated from Ghana, are unable to spend time with their grandparents located many miles away, and might otherwise miss out on interacting with this elder generation.

Both teachers have always had an eye for intergenerational programs between students and older adults, feeling that the connections made were very important for both. Hummon said the Bridges program simply made that desire become a reality.

They hope it will become a tradition for Johnny Appleseed students upon entering fourth grade to have that chance to participate in the program. They note that they are just shy of the 16 minimum volunteers needed, and hope for more involvement from the community in order to keep the program going and expand it from the two now participating, to eventually include all six of the fourth-grade classes.

It was because of an anonymous donor who gave the funds that Johnny Appleseed was able to partner its efforts with the Leominster Senior Center to implement the program. The curriculum, in tune with Common Core values, was created and written by the program’s Massachusettsbased founder, Andrea Fonte Weaver.

Usually, the seniors are split, with seven going to work with students in Lelli’s class and the remaining seven meeting up with those in Hummon’s classroom.

Fourth-grader Abby Renzi and her fellow students Louis Ngunda and Evelyn Petrullo said the experience with senior Barbara Mahoney has been a lot of fun for them. They were excited about previous sessions when they were able to meet and get to know Mahoney and then share their traditions, cultures and even family heirlooms with her, and then continue this week with demonstrating and learning new skills in such things as flag football, sewing, and even making “cootie catchers.”

The program’s ideal, say those at Johnny Appleseed, is “lifelong learning,” where you are “never too young to teach something, and you’re never too old to learn something new.”

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