Emily Merritt, Director, intergenerational Initiatives at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities

As we approach Grandparents Day 2018 on Sunday, September 9, and celebrate Intergenerational Awareness Month throughout September, I am reflecting on my own grandmother figure, my great-aunt Caroleen, whom my sisters and I lovingly referred to as “Aunt Dot.”  Aunt Dot passed at the impressive age of 99 in 2013, after an incredible life dedicated to civil rights, education, and serving others. As a child, I admired how witty, strong, and brave she was — I knew she cared for me greatly, along with the other children in our family. It was not until recently that I fully appreciated how she lived a life of action, purpose, and cared for so many people outside her own family, especially for children. 

A trailblazer and advocate in education, Aunt Dot became the nation’s first female superintendent of a Catholic School system when she accepted the job in the Diocese of Dallas in 1967. Aunt Dot liked to share the memory of sitting in a ballroom with hundreds of priests at a national education conference. As the only female in the room, she often received little respect. During dinner, the clerics didn’t let her sit with them, and when she did anyway, they ignored her repeated requests to pass the sugar. “I’ll just have my tea without it then,” she responded.  Up until her final year, she would drink her tea without sugar, as a reminder of her challenges and triumphs. Aunt Dot was an advocate for children across all economic and racial backgrounds as she supported integration measures, she was an inspiration to women, and was a steadfast, caring mentor to so many.  

Through my work with the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities Second Acts initiative, we are testing approaches to bring more “Aunt Dots” into the classrooms of our member organizations. We want more children and youth to experience the strength, patience, humor, kindness, and resilience that I enjoyed with Aunt Dot. While piloting these strategies in 9 organizations across the country, we have begun to observe the power of the “grandparent” connection. This refers to a special, unique closeness that flourishes between children and older adults in the classroom. It also refers to the teachers’ experience of appreciation and support from the older volunteers. Staff and teachers alike report that the “grandparents” are infusing warmth and a “family-like” atmosphere into their social service and educational settings. Our experience echoes the “grandmother hypothesis” put forward by researchers, demonstrating how grandmothers helped the species survive and evolve by providing care and social cohesiveness.     

Here are three examples of the “grandparent connection” at work in the Alliance Network:  

  • Lad Lake, Dousman and Milwaukee, WI provides 24-hour treatment, education, and counseling for youth and families facing a range of challenges including addiction and violence. Lad Lake recruited Trish to volunteer an extra hand and ear to students on campus in the classroom… an “Aunt Dot” of sorts on campus.  With a background in counseling, education, and tai chi instruction, she has built supportive relationships with a few of the students. Tim, a math teacher, observed, “Trish’s patience and ability to truly listen and offer sound guidance has had a positive, unique impact on these boys. They remain calmer and more respectful when she’s in the class.” Lad Lake is currently working to expand the engagement of adults 50+ in residential classrooms through their new “Foster Grandparent” program.  
  • United Neighborhood Houses of New York, New York, NY has engaged a team of older adults to work with grade school students in a neighborhood after school program. They spend their time there working together to plan crafts, activities, and food for each upcoming engagement at the community center. The “grandparent connection” was demonstrated through the connection between a young Spanish-speaking boy, who was painfully shy before connecting with Rosa, also a Spanish-speaking 50+ volunteer. The two spent weeks working side by side, getting to know each other, and practicing their English. Both staff and Rosa observed the boy’s increase in confidence, speaking abilities, and increased interaction with other kids, staff, and adults.  To help formalize these powerful connections, UNH is developing a partnership with Jumpstart to provide language, literacy, and social-emotional programming for preschool children. While Jumpstart traditionally recruits college age students, this effort is intentionally targeting older adults. In phase one of the launch of this partnership, UNH aims to train approximately 20-24 older adults to work with over sixty 3 and 4-year-olds.   
  • Alpert Jewish Family Service in West Palm Beach, FL has partnered with the local religious education system, to integrate older adults as in-classroom supports to children attending classes. Josh, Director of Education, revealed that the integration of older adults into the classroom has improved the experience for all. “We’ve got older adults with huge smiles across their faces, having the opportunity to share their wisdom and culture. We’ve got kids chanting their “grandparents” names as they enter the class, and we’ve got teachers lining up for volunteers because of the improved focus they experience from the kids, in the presence of the older adults.”    

Are you interested in integrating the grandparent connection in your work with children and youth? Here are four steps you can take right away:  

  • Design a great role for “grandparents” to play in your classroom or elsewhere — Check out this 6-minute video on designing roles for adults 50+. 
  • Recognize influential older adults in the lives of young people you work with by celebrating Grandparents Day September 9. Remember, they don’t have to be the children’s biological grandparents to be celebrated!  
  • Strengthen intergenerational connections in September for Intergenerational Awareness Month by organizing one of the five simple activities in this toolkit.  
  • Attend the 2018 Alliance National Conference, to be held Oct. 15-17 in Denver, to hear how Alliance members in the Second Acts cohort are tapping older adults to support youth in a PechaKucha workshop

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