By Emily Merritt

We’ve all seen it — that special closeness that flourishes between children and older adults, the warmth, family-like atmosphere and social cohesion that older adults can bring to classrooms full of kids and teachers. The grandparent connection.

My great-aunt Caroleen filled the role for my sisters and me. Aunt Dot, as we called her, passed a few years ago at the impressive age of 99, after an incredible life dedicated to civil rights, education and serving others.

We knew her as witty, strong and loving. Others knew her as the nation’s first female superintendent of a Catholic School system. Aunt Dot liked to share the memory of sitting in a ballroom, the only woman among hundreds of priests at a national education conference in the late 1960s. The clerics didn’t make her feel welcome, refusing her a spot at their dinner table. When she sat with them anyway, they ignored her repeated requests to pass the sugar.

“I’ll just have my tea without it then,” she said.

For the rest of her life, Aunt Dot drank her tea without sugar as a reminder of the challenges and triumphs she encountered while advocating for integration and for children across all economic and racial backgrounds. She was an inspiration to women and a steadfast, caring mentor to so many.

At the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities Second Acts initiative, we’re testing approaches to bring more Aunt Dots into the classrooms of our member organizations. We want more children and youth to experience the strength, patience, humor, kindness and resilience of older adults.

As a result, we’re seeing the power of the grandparents connection at work.

Lad Lake, an Alliance member organization in Dousman and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, provides 24-hour treatment, education and counseling for youth and families facing a range of challenges including addiction and violence. The organization calls itself the “emergency room of the child welfare system.” Older adult volunteers help with students who have suffered from repeated trauma and are slow to trust.

Trish Van Puersem, in her 70s, came to Lad Lake with a background in counseling, education and tai chi instruction. Leaning on that experience, she slowly and quietly built supportive relationships with a few of the students there.

“Trish’s patience, ability to truly listen and offer sound guidance has had a positive, unique impact on these boys,” says Tim Conkey a math teacher there. “They remain calmer and more respectful when she’s in the class.”

Lad Lake is currently working to expand the engagement of adults 50+ in residential classrooms and housing units through their new “foster grandparent” program.

United Neighborhood Houses in New York City has engaged a team of older adults to work with elementary school students in a neighborhood afterschool program, where they plan crafts, activities and food for each activity at the community center.

Rosa Hardin, a Spanish-speaking woman in her 70s, volunteers there. For weeks, she worked to build a relationship with a young and painfully shy Spanish-speaking boy. Over time, staff observed the boy’s increased  confidence, speaking abilities and interaction with other kids, staff and adults.

To help formalize these powerful grandparent connections, UNH is developing a partnership with Jumpstart to provide language, literacy and social-emotional programming for preschool children. While Jumpstart traditionally recruits college-age students, this effort intentionally targets older adults. The plan is to train two dozen older adults to work with more than 60 three- and four-year olds.

Alpert Jewish Family Service in West Palm Beach, Florida, has partnered with local religious schools to integrate a group of older adults as in-classroom supports to students. It’s working.

“We’ve got older adults with huge smiles across their faces, having the opportunity to share their wisdom and culture,” says Josh Ackman, educational director at a local synagogue. “We’ve got kids chanting the older volunteers’ names as they enter the class. And we’ve got teachers lining up for volunteers.”

I think Aunt Dot would be proud.

Are you interested in adding the power of the grandparent connection to your work with children and youth? Here are four steps you can take right away:

  • Design a great role for older adults to play in your classroom or elsewhere. Check out this 6-minute video for guidance.
  • Strengthen connections across generations for Intergenerational Awareness Month in September by organizing one of the five simple activities in this toolkit.
  • Attend the 2018 Alliance National Conference, Oct. 15-17 in Denver, to hear how Alliance members are tapping older adults to support youth. Check out this PechaKucha workshop in particular.

Emily Merritt is the director of intergenerational Initiatives at the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a Gen2Gen partner organization.