Leo Gagnon and Sandy Blythe sat on a bench in the lobby of Oak Bluffs Elementary School, waiting. Their eyes gleamed with anticipation as more of their friends from the senior center started to arrive. Slowly, a small group of 12 Oak Bluffs seniors assembled in the lobby for the Bridges Together program. The seniors will gather at the school once a week for the six-week program, which is sponsored by the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging in conjunction with the Oak Bluffs School, and meet with second graders and teachers for a story and crafts.
The program, founded by Andrea J. Fonte Weaver in 1991 in Sudbury, unites seniors with second graders as a way to empower and connect generations, the mission statement on the Bridges Together website says.
“We share our old-age knowledge — our wisdom — and answer their questions … we talk about things that make them happy, things that make them sad, things like that,” Gagnon said. “[The kids] really look forward to us showing up each week.”
Blythe explained that the 12 of them are divided among the three second-grade classrooms, and after the teachers read the stories, they break up into groups of three or four students per senior. “You really start to build relationships with the kids,” Blythe said. “It’s very rewarding.”
It happened to be the school’s pajama day. So, dressed cozily in their fuzzy, cupcake- and kitten-covered onesie pajamas, the kids settled in for a story.
“It’s always a surprise which story the teachers will read,” Gagnon said. The book and corresponding crafts are predesignated by the Bridges Together program, but teachers have the freedom to customize the activities if they want to. This week, the book chosen by the program was “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel,” which was published in 1939. As they gathered in a circle, one teacher, Jennifer Robinson, asked her class if they knew the story. Many didn’t, but the seniors chimed in, reminiscing about their own childhood memories with the classic story.
Among the senior group were 90-year-old Bob Falkenburg and his wife Jodi, who both participated in the program last year, and returned for its second year. “It’s great fun,” Falkenburg said. “The kids enjoy it, and we do too.”
Robinson decided to change up the suggested craft of building characters from the story out of recycled materials, so instead her class and the seniors made and decorated cardboard houses that would collectively make up Potterville, the town from the story. Falkenburg, whose simultaneous joy and avid enthusiasm continued throughout the whole afternoon, worked and talked with his group of students, Matthew Alves, Ayslly Otoni, and Lyla BenDavid. Lyla made her house complete with a chimney, topped with gray pompoms for a billowing smoke effect. “Wow, isn’t that something!” Falkenburg said, adoring Lyla’s house. “There’s nothing quite like that creativity.”
Another student, Ruby Glynn, said she loves when they get to do this. “I like that you can make whatever you want,” she said, “and I like that [the seniors] get to make the crafts with us.”
Robinson, who has worked at the school for 30 years, and Rose Cogliano, director of the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, hope the program continues for years to come. “It’s just really sweet to see,” Robinson said. “The interactions are really nice. They look at them like they’re their own grandparents.”