Building relationships with books

  • A student in the Greenfield High School Life Program reads with seniors at the John Zon Community Center. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Students in the high school Life Program and seniors pack and distribute food to the needy once a month. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Coconut, mango and dragon fruit were recently served to the Books and Bagels reading group. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Students and seniors distribute food to the needy once a month. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/9/2019 10:59:22 PM
Modified: 5/9/2019 10:59:11 PM

GREENFIELD — What happens when seniors and students in Greenfield High School’s Life Program read books together?

Suzie Hale, transition coordinator for the Life Program at Greenfield High School, said relationships are built, confidence increases and life skills are developed and honed.

The post-graduate Life Program at Greenfield High School serves students age 17 to 22 with different challenges. If a student has an individualized education plan, they can stay in the program until they are 22, when they age out of it.

“Lots of these kids don’t have grandparents because of family dynamics,” Hale said. “They really enjoy and need those types of relationships, and our seniors can provide that for them.”

She said about six students and between seven and 11 seniors participate.

Hale and Avery Schleeweis, volunteer coordinator at the Greenfield Council on Aging, have been working together to keep the Books and Bagels program going. 

“The seniors see the teens regularly for Books and Bagels,” Director of the Greenfield Council on Aging Hope Macary said. “They also have a walking club and work together to distribute food through our Brown Bag program. The students get to know us, and we get to know them.”

Macary said the Books and Bagels program is so good for both students and seniors, she would like to nominate it for a Best Practice Award at the national level next year.

“It really deserves it,” she said. “It gives a major boost to both populations, and it provides great life lessons.”

The program brings students and seniors together once a week for a light breakfast of bagels and fruit while they discuss the book they are all reading.

This semester, they read “Seedfolks” by Paul Fleischman. It’s about 13 different people from all walks of life — old, young, Hispanic, Haitian, tough, hopeful and more — each telling the same story about a garden that transforms a neighborhood and all of them.

Schleeweis and Hale said it really seemed to resonate with everyone who read the book. They said they’d also like to see the community garden revived at the John Zon Community Center, like it was at the senior center’s former location, so that maybe in the future students and seniors could do some gardening together, like people did in the book.

“This is a great chance for these students to be with someone they can look up to and gain some wisdom,” Schleeweis said.

“The main focus for students is work readiness,” Hale said. “We spend much of our time going to job sites every day. Some of our students also participate in the Brown Bag program here at the Greenfield Senior Center, distributing food once a month to those in need.”

Schleeweis said the food bank provides food and students and seniors package it and distribute it to mostly low-income seniors.

Some of the same seniors and students that participate in the other two programs have also joined a walking club, meeting on the Greenfield High School track once a week when the weather is good and walking for a half-hour.

Hale said many of the students “light up” when they see their senior buddy, whether on the track, at the Brown Bag or at Books and Bagels. 

“They give each other a little hug and start chatting,” she said. “Seniors really try to engage the students by asking questions and offering guidance and advice.”

Schleeweis said a number of the seniors pairing with the Life Program students are retired teachers who worked as paraprofessionals or teachers during their careers. She said they tell her they miss those times — the one-on-one with students. 

“Some of the seniors don’t have family in the area, so exposure to young people really makes their day,” she said.

The seed for Books and Bagels was planted last fall, when Schleeweis and Hale were bouncing ideas off of each other, they said.

“We thought a multigenerational program would be of great interest,” Schleeweis said.

“The school librarian gave us ideas for books,” Hale said. “We wanted something short and easy for students to read, but not so easy or boring that seniors wouldn’t enjoy it. It turned out to be the right choice for people at varied reading levels.”

Hale said there were times when the students didn’t always pick up on the underlying messages, but the discussions helped.

“We’d read a chapter aloud at school and do a little discussing ourselves,” Hale said. “The students would come up with questions that we would all discuss when we met at the center. By the end, the students loved discussing their questions and the book, and they loved reading aloud to the seniors.”

At the last Books and Bagels for “Seedfolks,” Schleeweis took some of the grant money and bought fruit the students, and even some seniors, had never tried. She also made everyone a bookmark.

“They were fruits from different cultures in the book,” she said. “Everyone was able to try dragon fruit, coconut and mango.”

Hale said she hopes students decide to read on their own throughout the summer.

“We hope they’ve all taken something away from this experience,” Hale said. “It’s a wonderful collaboration with the seniors. They all have so much to offer these students, and the students have so much to offer them.”




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