SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 16, 2013

Young meet young-at-heart

Seniors bridge generations with preschoolers on Peabody campus

Ethan Forman
Staff writer

PEABODY — A few days shy of his 92nd birthday in March, Max Forman donned a homemade crown with the number 100 on it.

The crown was meant to mark the 100th day of school at the North Suburban Jewish Community Center, which is located on the campus of the Aviv Centers for Living, a senior care facility on Lynnfield Street where Forman was a resident.

Since the start of the last school year, Forman had been volunteering as part of a new intergenerational program meant to bring seniors and young children together. The program gives kids who do not have grandparents a chance to interact with an older adult, while also giving elders who do not have grandchildren nearby a chance to be around young kids.

“It was fantastic,” teacher Paula Andruskiewicz said. “The kids were always excited on Monday morning.” She is already preparing for the start of a new year in a few weeks.

One year in, the program is getting raves from all involved — seniors and kids alike.

“I’m sort of like a surrogate grandfather,” said Marty Lawson, 92, another volunteer, “but at this age, it’s sort of like a great-great grandfather.”

Some parents said their children loved having the older gentlemen in class.

“For Aidan, he just expected to see them on Monday,” said Randi Brown, a Middleton mother whose son participated. Aidan, 5, gives a big nod “yes” when asked if the men were his friends.

But it’s also been a blessing for the volunteers.

When Forman became ill, the children drew cards for him, and staff brought them to the hospital. He died a short time later, on March 13. Forman’s son, Michael Forman of Florida, was so moved by the outpouring from the children, he had his father buried with the cards. His father often spoke to him about spending time with the kids, he said.

“The whole experience was wonderful,” said Michael Forman, who received a booklet made of construction paper that included drawings and thoughts about his father, who liked to play harmonica and entertain the children with songs.

The intergenerational program was made possible when the JCC moved to the retirement center’s campus last September. Directors of the two programs came up with the idea of having seniors residing in the assisted-living building volunteer with the preschool kids.

“From the beginning, having the generations participate together in activities and holidays has been a goal,” said Liz Polay-Wettengel, communications director for the facility.

They celebrate Jewish holidays like Purim, in addition to secular ones like Flag Day and Halloween.

In class, Lawson does projects with the kids and plays outdoors whenever possible. He plans to continue volunteering this fall.

“When I’m in here, I’m one of them,” said Lawson, who likes the variety the program brings to his life. He tries to imagine what the children will be like when they grow up, he said. Lawson, too, received a construction paper booklet from the students. On one page, it reads: “Thank you for sharing the money with us” — a reference to the time he brought pennies to class for show-and-tell.

It’s an object that some students nowadays may not be familiar with, given how society has moved away from cash and coins. He also noted the penny does not buy what it used to when he was young.

Lawson said he is amazed by the kids’ smarts. One time, he brought in his electronic book reader for the kids to see.

“When I brought out my Kindle, these kids showed me things I didn’t know,” he marveled.

This week he brought along pictures of himself — one “in crib stage” when he was a baby; another with his late wife, Eleanor “Tybie,” to whom he was married for 68 years; and another in his Navy uniform during World War II. He and his wife, who died in July 2012, have three grown children and three grandchildren. Lawson ran a wholesale camera supply business before the Internet did that in, he said.

“I know that for our residents that volunteer here, it makes them feel special, it brings back memories for them,” said Megin Hemmerling, Aviv’s executive director of assisted living.

When Lawson was asked if he minded the noise the young kids make while playing, he noted that he wore a hearing aid.

“I don’t notice that,” he said, smiling.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.