Bridging the generation gap
In 2016, the World Health Organization embarked on an ambitious campaign called the Global Campaign to Combat Ageism. The campaign was necessary, according to the WHO, since “unlike other forms of discrimination, including sexism and racism, [ageism] is socially accepted and usually unchallenged.”
Recently, a team of researchers at Cornell University, working on behalf of the campaign, announced a solution: They found that intergenerational programs significantly reduced ageism among younger participants.
That’s not surprising to Tiffany Sanford, recruiter at the Baltimore branch of AARP Foundation Experience Corps (formerly Baltimore Experience Corps) — an intergenerational tutoring program that helps students in grades K-3 reach their reading goals. Most of the tutors in the program are over 60.
Sanford said that some of the students in the program start out with preconceived notions about older adults. “We had a kid say to a volunteer, ‘I never saw a person as old as you!’”
Eventually, the youngsters discover they can depend on the tutors, who lend consistency to their lives.
“Our volunteers are so capable,” Sandford said. “We have one 80-year-old who jumps rope and plays dodgeball with the kids! The kids learned not to judge a book by its cover.”
Helping students succeed
Leonor Blum, an Argentine immigrant and professor emerita at Notre Dame of Maryland University, decided after retiring from 30 years of teaching that she wanted to establish a nonprofit because she “loved watching young people develop.”
During her tenure at Notre Dame, Blum had seen that many of her Latina students didn’t finish college, and she was determined to give them the tools they needed to succeed.
So, in 2013, she founded ¡Adelante Latina!, or “Move Forward, Latina” — a free, three-year after-school academic enrichment and college preparatory program for low-income Latinas who attend Baltimore City high schools.
The program had a tremendous impact on Jessica Membreno. Now a senior at Grinnell College in Iowa, Membreno said, “I can’t imagine where I would be without Ms. Blum and ¡Adelante Latina!”
Membreno and Blum formed a special relationship after Blum recruited Membreno for the program. Despite the age difference between Blum, then 73, and Membreno, 21, “We have many similarities,” Membreno said.
“We’re both passionate about literature, and we even practiced French together,” she said. “Ms. Blum is amazing. She wants to make an impact, and she does make an impact…I think of her as my education mother.”
In celebration of ¡Adelante Latina!’s “intergenerational cooperation,” Blum was awarded AARP Maryland’s State President’s Award in October.
Tutor Jack Sinnigen, a retired UMBC professor who has tutored students in the program for the past five years, nominated Blum for the AARP award. The intergenerational and intercultural nature of ¡Adelante Latina! is “exciting,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much I learn from my students and their families.”
Before the pandemic, tutors and tutees would also attend plays and movies together, Sinnigen said. “We talk a lot about the world. I make sure my students keep up with their Spanish and stay in touch with their cultural roots. It makes them richer people.”
While Sinnigen hasn’t experienced a generational disconnect with any of his students, Blum says it does happen on occasion.
“We had a tutor who…had a serious tremor. At first, her student was totally unresponsive. She kept asking if she could change tutors. But then the tutor started taking her to classical concerts. They built a strong relationship and are still in touch,” Blum said.
“That’s the wonderful thing about having older tutors,” Blum said. “They get really involved with their tutees.”
Connecting despite pandemic
Similarly, the mission of another Maryland group, Empowering the Ages, is “to connect older and younger generations in a meaningful way,” said Leah Bradley, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We do that through various initiatives, and we look at the intergenerational piece to enhance lives and communities.”
Empowering the Ages’ programs include Sharing Smiles Notes, in which older and younger people establish relationships via email. The program currently has a whopping 900 participants. Bradley said.
Sharing Smiles Notes recently has attracted many college and medical school students to participate. “It’s been fascinating,” Bradley said. “A lot of them were heartbroken when they couldn’t finish school [in person] last year. They were really lonely and looking for a way to connect during the pandemic.”
Bradley and her staff have analyzed some of the emails that participants have written to one another, and they reflect true connection between generations.
“On the youth side, we see comments like, ‘You’re so easy to talk to’ and ‘I never knew we’d have so much in common.’”
Holocaust survivors change lives
Lessons of the Shoah, an intergenerational and interfaith program created through a long-term partnership between the Baltimore Jewish Council (BJC), the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the John Carroll School, teaches students what happened in Europe during the Holocaust by bringing together Holocaust survivors, typically in their 80s and 90s, and students from local schools.
John Carroll, a private high school in Bel Air, hosts survivors for an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day event. The programs not only educate students about anti-Semitism and the continuing atrocities of genocide. They also change students’ perceptions of older adults.
The programs “make [students] see the world differently,” said Louise Brink Géczy, senior project coordinator and coordinator of External Holocaust Programs for the John Carroll School.
“Any time you can put a face to a number…It’s one thing to study a history book. It’s another thing to sit across the table from a survivor and hear their story. Our students consistently tell us it’s one of the best experiences in their four years of high school,” Géczy said.
After the survivors’ visits, students write thank-you notes to them. Some maintain contact after their initial correspondence, said Géczy, who keeps a file of students’ comments.
As one student wrote: “This was an experience that I will never forget. When I was told that I would be a different person after you left, I was told the truth.”
Another student said the survivors who visited the school were “some of the most inspirational humans I have ever met.”
Jeanette Parmigiani, director of Holocaust Programs for the BJC, agrees that the survivors’ stories make indelible impressions on many of the students who hear them. Sometimes the experience of interacting and hearing from an elderly Holocaust survivor prompts a spontaneous and profoundly loving response.
“I remember after one of our survivors spoke…a little girl in seventh or eighth grade came up and hugged her. She said, ‘I wish you were my grandmother!’”
Learn more about volunteer opportunities at the following groups:
AARP Foundation Experience Corps: Call (443) 278-9400 x106 or email email@example.com
Adelante Latina: Call (410) 591-0547 or fill out the form at adelantelatinabaltimore.org/volunteer. No Spanish required.
Baltimore Jewish Council: Call (410) 542-4850 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Empowering the Ages: Call (301) 476-0186 or complete the form at empoweringtheages.org/volunteer.