High schoolers earn and learn

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Danielle Rexrode and Carol Sorgen

Dominique Chandler, supervisor of Charlestown Retirement Community’s Atrium Restaurant, visits with resident Roberta Poulton. Chandler began his career as a server at Charlestown while still in high school in a program that offers scholarships to students — and gives them an opportunity for intergenerational conversation.
Photo by Mel Tansill

While still a freshman in high school, Dominique Chandler began working as a waiter at Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville, hoping to earn some money toward college. But unlike most first jobs, this one gave Chandler more than just a paycheck — he got the wisdom and support of 2,300 adopted grandparents.

“I love what I do,” said Chandler, who is now the supervisor at the Charlestown’s Atrium Restaurant. “Working here has given me the opportunity to gain valuable work experience through hands-on training, and provides a sense of responsibility and maturity,” Chandler continued.

“One of the many valuable life lessons I have learned from working here is to have respect for your elders. The lives they have lived, the experiences they have gone through, and the challenges they have overcome in their lives are noteworthy.”

Earning pay, scholarships

Charlestown’s six restaurants are currently staffed with 269 high school students who mainly work as hosts and servers. In addition to a regular paycheck, students have the opportunity to earn up to $600 a semester through a scholarship program funded by the community’s residents and management.

Since 1988, the program has awarded more than $2.3 million. Students become eligible for the scholarship by completing 1,000 hours of work and carrying at least a 2.0 grade point average. Eligible students receive $1,200 per year with a lifetime maximum of $4,800 toward higher education.

Chandler, a graduate of Maritime Academy (formerly known as Walbrook High School), attended the Community College of Baltimore County and later Stratford University, where he studied advanced culinary arts with scholarship money he received from the Charlestown fund.

“We have students working here from about 30 different city and county schools,” said Lateshia Griggs, Charlestown’s human resources recruiter. Students must be at least 15 years, 8 months old to apply for work there. Once hired, they work three four-hour shifts each week.

“We look for students who have an outgoing spirit, a willingness to learn, great communication skills, and a friendly, enthusiastic personality,” said Griggs. In turn, “the residents share a lot with the students about their lives and career paths, and I believe it helps to shape their future career goals.”

Chef de Cuisine Kira Brosig began working as a server at Charlestown at age 15 while a student at Western Technical High School.

“I went to high school down the street from Charlestown, and I also had a friend who was working here,” said Brosig. “The opportunity to earn money to further my education was very enticing.” 

Brosig attended Anne Arundel Community College and majored in business management while continuing to work at Charlestown as a dining room captain. After receiving her culinary arts certificate, she went on to become a line cook and then sous chef before earning the title chef de cuisine.

“I feel blessed to know the residents here,” said Brosig, who is now married and expecting her second child. “Every one of them has a story. They watched me grow up, and still want to know how I’m doing and what is going on in my life.”

Roberta Poulton speaks with new students at orientation about what life is like as a resident. “A lot of the students haven’t had relationships with people from this generation,” said Poulton, a retired pediatric nurse. “I tell them their perception of what a ‘senior’ is might not be what you will experience here at Charlestown. We aren’t sitting around in rocking chairs. We are busy taking college classes, joining clubs, and attending events — it feels more like a college campus than a retirement community.”

This month, the residents will celebrate the current class of graduating students with a graduation ceremony held in the John Erickson Conference Center. It is an opportunity for the students to introduce their families from home to their resident family at Charlestown.

Poulton said she has met many students who started out as servers and went on to become managers or work in the culinary arts field.

“You get to know them, and they get to know you,” said Poulton. “They really become like part of your family. It’s nice to see them succeed.”

Both sides reap rewards

Judah L. Ronch, dean and professor at UMBC’s Erickson School of Aging, commented on the mutual benefits of programs like the one at Charlestown. “High school students gain a unique perspective on the aging population, while also reinforcing their social and customer service skills, while elders enjoy being ‘grandparents by proxy’ to these young people,” he said.

“Such experiences encourage students to start thinking about the aged in our society, and how they need to be cared for and respected,” Ronch continued.

He also noted that there is something different about being a server in a community like Charlestown rather than in an ordinary restaurant. “They’re caring for people in their own home,” he said. “That makes a difference.”

Ronch added that such a program gives both students and elders “a comfortable space” in which to form relationships. “The residents have the opportunity to shape this generation without it being their ‘job.’ It’s socializing but without a lesson plan, so to speak.”

While there are intergenerational programs at many retirement communities, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and the like, the difference is that a program such as Charlestown’s builds relationships.

“Relationship is the key word,” Ronch explained. “The residents see these kids every day. It’s not just a ‘hit and run’ occasional visit. There are benefits to ongoing relationships that you don’t get from occasional contact.”

Ronch acknowledged that such programs require an extra level of management responsibility, but he feels that the investment more than warrants the effort and would like to see other communities offer similar programs.

One such program is at Oak Crest, another Erickson Retirement Community, located in Parkville. The Student Scholars Program at Oak Crest is modeled after the one at Charlestown and is just as successful, say both residents and students.

Dr. Jack Orth, 83, a retired family physician at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, moved to Oak Crest with his wife five years ago. The former resident of Harford County became familiar with the program while serving on the Residents’ Advisory Council.

“Why does this win-win relationship between the students and residents work so well?” he asked. “It’s that generous people are being generous with each other. With their vibrant personalities, the students remind us that this is a great time in our lives. In turn, the residents want to see that the students have the means to achieve their dreams.”

This year marks the 19th year of the program at Oak Crest, with an awards ceremony scheduled for April 22 with 38 student honorees, plus family members, residents and dignitaries.

Over the last 18 years, the program has raised over $2.36 million, assisting 671 students in advancing their education. The funds are mainly generated from residents. A resident committee partners with management in developing the annual fundraising campaign. Employees and outside donors can also contribute.

To be eligible for a $5,000 college scholarship, the students must work a minimum of 1,000 hours between their junior and senior years of high school, genuinely build relationships with residents, maintain a positive work record, and be on good terms upon leaving. 

“This program is a special part of the overarching culture at Oak Crest,” said Todd Sullivan, director of philanthropy. “It reflects a special symbiotic relationship between the residents and students, both finding joy in the experiences and stories of the other. Even in tough times, both generations find comfort in a friendly hug and even a shoulder to cry on.”

One of this year’s awardees, Meghan Kozlowski, works in the Windows Restaurant at Oak Crest and will be attending a local college in the fall.

“Working at Oak Crest has been, and still is, a great experience for me,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place to have as a first job because it teaches you a lot of values and how to be responsible. Residents have made an impact on me by showing me how much they appreciate everything that I do for them.”

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Getek.