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June 11, 2008 > Bridging the generation gap

Bridging the generation gap

By Aditya Anand
Photos By courtesy of Pathways to Positive Aging

Elementary school students in Fremont and Newark have been accomplishing a feat daunting to many adolescents and adults alike: relate to people outside their age group. Through the Senior Pen Pal program, 150 sixth graders have been avidly exchanging letters with 75 senior citizens in these communities. By sharing interests, hobbies, and anecdotes from their lives, students and seniors have managed to transcend the proverbial "generation gap" and learn more about each other; cultures and lifestyles.

The Senior Penpal program, part of the Pathways to Positive Aging project, is managed by the Tri-City Elder Coalition. Funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation allows Pathways to Positive Aging to work toward the creation of a nurturing community that respects and provides opportunities for seniors. Many seniors have requested assistance to learn about and have contact with people of other ages; the Senior Penpal program is a response to these requests.

Focused on the same goals as its parent project - to improve the quality of life for seniors - the Senior Penpal Project has been expanding since its inception. In 2007, the program provided 6th graders from Mission San Jose and Durham Elementary schools with the opportunity to get to know seniors in the Fremont community. Through the program, students and seniors sent each other monthly letters for three months. After learning about each other through letters, they were able to meet in person at a celebration luncheon.

Asha Chandra of the City of Fremont Human Services Department deemed the program a success for both parties. In a letter, one student commented "I used to think that all seniors are couch potatoes, but you're different. You have done so much in your life!" Due to its success, the Senior Penpal project expanded in 2008.

With the assistance of a generous grant from Cargill, the Senior Penpal program has grown to include five classes from schools in Fremont and Newark in 2008. One hundred fifty 6th graders were paired with 75 seniors to exchange letters. Letters were written during class hours, and based on a standard template. The front page of each letter was open-ended, allowing students to discuss events that happened in their lives. On the reverse side of the letter, fill-in-the-blanks let seniors know their penpal's hobbies, favorite foods, dream careers, and interests.

After writing to each other from February to April, students and seniors attended one of two celebration luncheons, sponsored by Kaiser Permanente in May. During the luncheons, students had a chance to meet their penpals on an informal basis and get to know them. Notable dignitaries attended the luncheons including the mayors of Fremont and Newark at each city's respective events.

Although sixth grade students and seniors formed the primary focus of the program, teen volunteers played an important role, spreading the word about the penpal program, checking for accuracy in letters, and helping out at the luncheon. For their assistance in project coordination they received community service hours at their high schools. Teachers of the classes that participated in Senior Penpals were also essential to the project. Coordinator Asha Chandra said, "It's a great way to build intergenerational ties and it has helped changed perceptions of senior citizens."

According to Chandra, the future of this project is bright. She maintains that "there's always a way to improve it" but the purpose will remain, to improve the quality of life for seniors. She says it's a winning combination for everyone: "It is a fun project that both the seniors and kids love working on."

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