16 December 2008 10:30 AM

Volunteering: Bringing All Ages Together

by Dr. Rick

Children need older folks.  Older folks need children.  It’s good when we can figure out ways to put the two together in mutually beneficial experiences.  I’ve just read about one such way.


It’s the bipartisan Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act,” legislation that aims to increase volunteerism and national service.  It provides lots of opportunities for people of all ages interested in helping our country.  But the part of the act that caught my attention is its opportunities for older folks.


People understand “volunteerism,” but “service” is a vague word, and it’s controversial to some.  (Service to whom?  Supported by whom?  Should government be involved?)  I’m more interested in the pragmatic and practical rather than the political.  Let the politicians battle.  In the meantime, give our schools the opportunities to use the energies and talents of our older citizens who want to be a part of the next generation. 


Does anyone doubt that too many students come to school without the benefit of adult supervision?  That many of these students need the guiding hand of a wise, experienced adult?  That some students could respond to the presence of stalwart grandmotherly or grandfatherly attention?


Does anyone doubt that many seniors could benefit from the youthful exuberance that’s a daily occurrence in classrooms across the country?  That their mere presence is a link to a past that for some students is ancient history, and shared recollections can make that history come, quite literally, alive?


I was honored a few years ago to host a symposium of high school students and Holocaust survivors, groups separated by two generations.  The stories told, the questions asked, the feelings expressed, the history related, the readings suggested, the interests sparked were inspiring and ennobling. 


The Holocaust survivors, whose stories held our attention and prompted our grief and respect, were, surprisingly, anxious before meeting with these students.  Can public speaking really be more frightening than the trials they’ve already endured?


The teens were anxious, too.  How to behave?  What to say?  How to sound “grown-up” while asking questions unimaginably personal? 


The experience was one of the most memorable of my career. The survivors were impressed with the quality of the questions, the sincerity of the comments.  The teens were impressed with the strength and determination of their guests. The interactions showed me how much we can learn from previous, present, and future generations if we only take advantage of the opportunities that are ours to create.


I hope the Kennedy-Hatch “Serve America Act” is successful beyond its bipartisan dreams.  I hope that youngsters and oldsters can come together in as many ways as we can think of to challenge and question each other, learn from each other, inspire each other, give hope to each other, spark memories for the oldsters, and create memories for the youngsters.


Is this happening in your community?  Let us know.  Share your thoughts and stories.  We’d enjoy hearing from you.


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