There is a program in Innisfil that is building lasting friendships between seniors and elementary students.
Barrie-based CFS Counselling and Wellbeing is preparing to introduce the GrandPals program into two classrooms at Holy Cross Catholic School within a few weeks. The program, started in Orangeville more than a decade ago, looks to bridge the age gap by training teams of older adults to go into schools and share their stories over the course of eight weeks with students in grades 5 to 8.
“It was created by a teacher who saw the potential of inter-generational interaction,” CFS MatureMinds coordinator Jenna Wickens said. “The stories of older adults are something that needs to be shared. There is learning. There is connection, relationship and friendship.”
Locally, at least six GrandPals will be attending Holy Cross with each volunteer assigned two to four students in the Grade 5 classrooms of Brittany Thompson and Caitlyn Casey.
The students will be prompted to ask questions in an interview style, then complete a written assignment and an art project related to their GrandPal. The volunteer checks the work for accuracy, and teachers are provided with resources to assist with evaluation.
“This is an opportunity for our students to make connections beyond their own families,” Casey said, noting programs like help students emerge from the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The program was first introduced in Simcoe County at a private school in Stayner last year. Some bonds became so strong that parents set up an ongoing schedule of barbecues for students and volunteers throughout the summer.
In other jurisdictions, students have maintained their connections into high school.
The program has proven effective at reducing the stereotypes associated with ageism, while giving older adults a purpose and a mechanism to share their valuable life experiences.
“If you’ve lived for any amount of time, you have stories,” Wickens said. “Sometimes, the GrandPals might think their stories are mundane, but for the students they mean a great deal. For our volunteers, we love that it values older adults. We love this program.”
She noted one story previously told by a GrandPal about their experience in the military, where they chose to defy orders and share medical rations with an injured civilian. They even brought in the replacement bandage rations to show the students. That case provided a tangible link to history and geography, but also a lesson in doing what is right.
“I figure there will be a great opportunity for (volunteers) to tell stories about when they were younger and how much schooling has changed,” Casey said. "We have a lot of kids who are in sports and say they're going to be a hockey player and they don't need school. Varying experiences of how (volunteers) have changed throughout their lives will help (students) see they're only 10 years old, your adulthood isn't decided yet."
CFS will begin a five-week training session for volunteers at the Innisfil ideaLAB and Library on Feb. 21 at 10 a.m. Participants will be required to attend at least three of the once-a-week 1.5-hour sessions, fill out an application and undergo a vulnerable sector check.
Similar training sessions will also be held at the CFS office in Barrie, with the goal of getting GrandPals into two classrooms in that city this spring.
Organizers hope this is the first step toward the countywide expansion of the program; there are already plans in the works to get into seven classes next school year.
"Once older adults have volunteered in this program, they come back," Wickens said. "They see the value in it. It is mutually beneficial."