Crossing generations, cultures

It was snack time for the fifth-graders at San Francisco Bay Academy when Brent Nettle strolled into the room, a Thursday afternoon routine.

In the seven weeks that Nettle, executive director of Eldergivers, has worked with these particular youngsters — all of whom belong to a school-within-a-school called the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) — Nettle has come to recognize every 9- and 10-year-old by name. It’s reciprocal; they cheer “Brent!” when he enters the room

Three years ago Eldergivers, a San Francisco organization devoted to the well-being of elders, started a cross-generational course called the A+ Program. It is a curriculum designed to teach youth how to foster friendships with the community’s elderly while visiting homes for the aged.

The KIPP kids have been meeting with residents of Rhoda Goldman Plaza, a San Francisco Jewish assisted-living complex, for several weeks now. Active listening is what encourages strong relationships between the young and the old. “The relationships, and what the elders and kids take and receive from them, are reciprocal,” Nettle said.

The kids benefit from learning appropriate social skills and manners, and developing ways to interact with people outside of their usual classroom environment. For the elders, the kids help them rekindle a significant sense of purpose. The result, Nettle hopes, is the forging of lasting bridges that cross generations and cultures.

The divide is large. Aside from the fact that an approximately 70-year age gap separates the youngest from the oldest, the KIPP kids are predominantly African American and Asian while the seniors are white and Jewish.

The challenge is to help each relate to the other. And the key, according to the kids’ fifth-grade teacher, Kate Shoemaker, is keeping your ears open. “There were a lot of differences between [the elderly and the kids] when they first started meeting this year. But it turns out that they both like listeners; they both like to be listened to. And they both want to help each other.”

Turns out, the similarities are not nearly so broad, and they are nurtured because each session lasts approximately 16 weeks before another group of children visits Rhoda Goldman Plaza. This allows the kids to better get to know the senior they are paired with. They may find, for instance, a shared affinity for black licorice or folk music, Shoemaker said.

As the kids crossed Geary Boulevard going from their school to Rhoda Goldman Plaza — a route they travel once a week with Nettle and Shoemaker — 10-year-old Demetrius Reagans, who wears a “diamond” stud in his left ear, explained that when they meet with their elders, they ask “skinny questions” and “fat questions.”

The “skinny questions” are meant to elicit one-word answers; the “fat” ones to draw out longer, more in-depth answers. After seven weeks of attentive listening, these answers have begun to paint intricate pictures of the lives of the program’s participants, highlight mutual interests and even backgrounds. Last week, Demetruis and 84-year-old Esther Felzer made a collage of things they realized they both enjoy. “I cut out lots of sweets from magazines. [Esther] likes dogs and candy,” he said.

The ratio between kids and Rhoda Goldman Plaza residents is nearly one-to-one, the program’s real success story. That same ratio applies to all 140 kids and the various homes for the aged participating in the A+ Program.

Classes from San Francisco Bay Academy, where KIPP is based, have been visiting Rhoda Goldman Plaza for the past eight weeks. For the nine women who were waiting for the kids in a warm, comfortable room on the second floor of the plaza, the A+ Program has been good for them. Kate Hoepke, the director of resident services at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, has noticed a real shift in the residents’ sense of purpose since the kids first started their weekly two hour-visits.

“The program is not for everybody. A senior with the capability for self-reflection really succeeds from it, and the long-term effects are well worth it,” she said. Those effects include rekindling the elders’ sense of purpose in the community by having them teach and get to know the kids.

Eldergivers measures the success of the A+ Program differently, by looking at its ability to foster meaningful friendships. Since its began, Eldergivers has initiated the A+ Program with six San Francisco schools, including French American International School of San Francisco, The Urban School, Cathedral School for Boys, Katherine Delmar Burke and San Francisco Day School.

Success has been slow but steady as more schools and classrooms invest. Impeded by the size of a small staff, the nonprofit Eldergivers relies on assistance from schools and teachers to make the A+ Program work.

The classroom teacher is an important component of the program, working side by side with Eldergivers in developing tailor-made curriculum guides for the students.

On this day, Shoemaker carried a dozen copies of a children’s storybook called “Mrs. Katz and Tush” that the kids and elders would read together. It features a young African American boy who befriends a Jewish widow and listens to the story of her life. In it, Mrs. Katz exclaims to her young friend: “Your people and mine are alike, you know. Trouble we’ve seen. Happiness, too. Great strengths we’ve had. You and I are alike, so much alike!”

The differences in background and cultures, though, are what typically pave the way for unexpected “fat” questions that arise later in the classrooms. “A couple of years ago, the subject of the Holocaust came up during one of the sessions,” Nettle said. “The kids laughed it off nervously because they didn’t know what it was. So the class went back and started reading ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.'”

Inside, the KIPP kids sat in a circle of chairs next to the elders they’ve been paired with for seven weeks now. “I’m learning more about my elder today,” 9-year-old Kimiko Saul explained. She and her partner, Lillian Rosenthal, shared a questionnaire called “Becoming Friends.” By asking a series of “fat” and “skinny” questions, Kimiko will later use the answers to write the biography of her older friend, starting with a basic: “She was born in Canada,” Kimiko said of her friend.

“That’s right, Toronto,” Lillian said, sitting beside her.

“Last week,” Kimiko said, “she made a necklace for the first time.”

“Yes, I’m very unhandy, but I made beads. The kids ask about where I came from and what it was like when I was their age. It’s more than that, though,” Lillian said. “They’ll ask me what makes me happy.”

Then she paused and, eyeing the side table now set with slices of cheese pizza and bottles of apple juice, she smiled and said, “It’s almost snack time.”