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WEST WHITELAND — Along with a picture of their elementary school buddies, the seniors at Sunrise of Exton also had a quote on the back of the photo, stuck in the flower pot which read, “The best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person…”
Two classes — one third, one fifth — from Exton Elementary had the opportunity to learn in that unique classroom experience by befriending seniors at Sunrise as part of a “Living History” project.
“To me, that was the best quote to put on there,” said Dorothy Schaller, third-grade teacher and organizer of the project. “It sums it all up. I don’t think a lot of students, aside from their own grandparents, realize what life is like as a senior and not everyone has someone come visit them all the time.”
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Funded by a mini-grant from the West Chester Area Education Foundation, Schaller was able to bring back the project, which was a hit the first time around as well.
Although this time, she had some minor tweaks, including making it one third- and one fifth-grade class instead of two third-grade classes.
Also, unlike last time, there will be a three trips total to Sunrise as part of the project.
“This time around, there was more money with the grant, so we’ll be back for three times,” Schaller said. “We want to try to up the companion part of it.”
The whole part of the project is to give the young kids a chance to interact with the wisest generation, outside of their own grandparents.
For the seniors at Sunrise, they have the opportunity to receive visitors they normally wouldn’t see.
And it has been a hit on all sides.
“(The seniors) were happy after the students left the first time and for days, they were talking about it,” said Heather Hetrick, executive director at Sunrise. “They got to share their stories with each other. The joy and pride in the residents’ faces and what they said are just great.”
The idea originally came from Schaller when she was visiting with her grandmother.
“My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and dementia,” she said. “When she did a two-week physical therapy, my mom and I went to visit her and I brought my daughter. The looks I saw on everyone’s faces when the saw her made me think I need to do this with my students somehow and then tabled it in my mind when she passed away that summer.”
But it didn’t take too long before Schaller was able to find the opportunity to bring her vision to life.
“We were told the Education Foundation for the district was doing mini-grants and I thought that would give us the money to get the buses,” she said.
Once the first year was found to be a success, Schaller gave it a little break to allow new faces to be part of the project on all sides.
Partnering with Ryan Kulesza’s fifth-grade class, Exton made its return to Sunrise.
In preparation, the staff at Sunrise went around to find residents to take part in the project.
“We try to pick residents who are a little more vocal and would be happy to share their story a little bit more so than some of the others,” Hetrick said. “It was a little bit of work trying to pick them and get them to agree to it. There were some declines, but now that everyone saw, I think the ones who declined are regretting it a little bit.”
The first trip out, as part of the biography unit, the students asked questions of their senior buddy to be able to write a biography about them.
Though some were shy to begin with on both sides, once everyone got going, there were plenty of stories to go around.
“It’s a win-win situation for both of them,” Schaller said. “With a lot of tough standards coming down on our students, trying to find a real-world way to apply them instead of just sitting in the classroom has been really nice.”
Once the interviews were complete in March, the students set to work writing rough drafts of the pages, which were then sent to Exton’s PTO, which happens to have a Red Tree Press program to create books for the students.
After the books were typed, printed and bound by parent volunteers, they were sent back to the students to illustrate themselves before then going to the IU to be photocopied so every person a part of the project — students and seniors — had their own copy of the biography.
On May 13, the students returned to Sunrise to read the finished biographies to their senior buddy and present them with their copy of the book, along with a flower in a pot decorated by the students.
“It’s neat hearing (the students) talk about the things and read to them,” Schaller said. It’s neat seeing the seniors’ eyes light up and elaborate even more. I heard even more details about some of my favorite stories since we’ve been here.”
Though the students are scheduled for only one more trip in June, each one is open to come back at any time to visit their buddy.
“They are welcome to come back and visit anytime after that,” Hetrick said. “Their families are welcome to come, too.”
For Schaller, it’s a fulfilling moment to see it all come together the way it did.
“The first day I came in, I had to walk back out so the kids wouldn’t see me lose it,” she said. “I have no living grandparents anymore. To see them see each other, I had to walk back out. I choked up again during the presentation. It makes me so happy to see the two ends coming together and coming around full circle.”