Intergenerational pre-K program launches at Grace Living Center

Jesse Crittenden / Transcript Staff Writer

Betty Rushing, resident at Grace Living Center, reads to Brayden Directo Friday during the "reading buddies" activity of the intergenerational program. The intergenerational program is a partnership with Norman Public Schools and Grace Living Center that launched earlier this school year.

Anyone who has visited Grace Living Center in the past few weeks may have noticed a few changes.

The changes are noticeable, from the addition of two classrooms that can be seen from the lobby, to the increased numbers of children walking around the assisted living center. That is because of a recent partnership with Norman Public Schools.

In August, two pre-kindergarten classes moved their classrooms to Grace to begin a new intergenerational pre-K program. The focus of this program is to establish and nourish relationships between the children and the center's elderly residents.

"We think everybody benefits when you bring the elderly and the children together," Ann Rosales, director of early childhood for Norman Public Schools, said. "It gives the elderly a sense of purpose and a newfound joy in their day. For the kids, it's the empathy they learn and the communication skills they learn getting to connect with someone from an older generation and learn from them every day."

Joshua Wood, administrative director for Grace Living Center, contacted the school district earlier this year to discuss the potential of the intergenerational program. After looking at several places, they decided Grace would be the most beneficial location to initiate the plan.

Construction of the classrooms and playground equipment began in May, and was finished within the last few weeks. Currently, there 38 students enrolled in two classrooms.

"We can't think Norman Public Schools enough for being open to the idea and helping us get what we needed to make this successful," Wood said. "A lot of this has happened on a very tight schedule, but everyone was committed to making this program work."

Grace and Norman Public Schools have prioritized the bonding of the residents and the students, which they call connections. One of the first connections is in the morning, when some of the "grands," the nickname for the residents, greet the students on the way into the building. They also have a daily connection called reading buddies, which involves several students being paired up with a grand for one-on-one reading time.

One of the favorite connection opportunities is the weekly ice cream social held every Wednesday.

"It's school, but with the benefit of having some grand friends," Lori Branson, Grace's liaison for the program, said. "It's like having your grandparents at school with you."

Lois Parkman, resident at Grace Living Center, has been living at the facility ever since she had a bad knee replacement and will likely be unable to walk again. She said the students have made a tremendous difference for her and other residents.

"I think this type of program is going to catch on everywhere," Parkman said. "We were all a little nervous when the children first got here because usually some kids just kind of stare at you. But these kids have just been so sweet and they've been so wonderful. It's the best kind of therapy for us, especially the ones like me that are here and can't go anywhere."

Erin Casey, assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Oklahoma, said she supports the increase in programs like this, and hopes other school districts will consider implementing similar initiatives.

"Children are so open to new experiences in their early ages, and interacting with people in different generations can really develop their emotional and social skills," Casey said. "(These programs) can also help them learn and interact with diverse groups and people with different backgrounds. It just seems to make so much sense that we should have those two generations together."

The team members of this program have been discussing ways to increase the connections between the grands and the students, and they are confident the program will continue to flourish going forward.

"Joshua (Wood) and I have said over and over again that we couldn't have asked for a better team to bring this program together and serve the residents and the students simultaneously," Rosales said. "It's just been a great thing for everybody."

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