NORTH ADAMS -- First graders and second graders have yet to be taught to spell compassion, but 32 children in those grades at Brayton Elementary School are already developing that quality.
Participants in a Senior Buddies program, the children walk into Williamstown Commons Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center, carrying pictures they have painted, greeting cards they have made, or hand-crafted items that they will give to the residents they visit. And they always bring a precious intangible - joy.
"I miss my children. I have grandchildren and they live out of town, two of them in Alaska," Dorothy Daunais, a resident of Williamstown Commons, said in a telephone interview. "It’s a joy to see the children (from Brayton). It makes your day."
Resident Meta Cardin "likes watching the children do what they are doing," she said. "They are so cute!"
Jackie Thomas, a first-grade teacher at Brayton Elementary School and Janice Paquette, activity director at Williamstown Commons, founded the Senior Buddies program approximately a year after they met by chance at Williamstown Commons seven years ago.
"Janice asked me what I did (for a living)," Thomas recalled, "When I told her I was a teacher, she asked if I would be interested in a pen-pal arrangement between residents of the Commons and my students."
The 16 children in Thomas’s class and residents of Williamstown Commons exchanged letters for about three months, and then they wanted to visit each other.
The number of children participating in the program soon doubled with the addition of the second-graders in Susan Gilman’s class.
"We had to get parents’ permission to take the children to a nursing home. And we keep the family informed on when we will go to the nursing home and what we will do there," said Gilman. "In the early days of the program, we had a few glitches. Once we tried to match students with seniors, but the seniors would come and go for one reason or another. I would try to explain to the children what had happened."
That was not always easy to do, so some facets of the program were changed. For instance, children no longer address their letters to a specific resident.
"I read the (children’s) letters to the residents when we are together in a group," said Paquette.
The young students reacted in different ways to visiting a nursing home. "Some are initially a bit fearful, but they are fine after an orientation visit," said Gilman.
Resident Sophie Michalski has noticed that "Shy children, stand and stare at you. They are nervous," she said, "then you call them over, and in no time at all, they are chatting with you."
There are children who are at ease with the seniors right away. "The last time they came, one ran up to me, gave me a chocolate bar and hugged me, "said Michalski.
Divided into groups of approximately 10, the children visit all three sections of Williamstown Commons: Rehabilitation, Residential and Alzheimer’s.
"Seeing the children reminds the residents of the happy days they had children of their own," Gilman said.
One resident said she likes the children because "they talk to us. One little boy told me all about his life," she said, chuckling.
The children’ occasionally come to a door that is locked, but thanks to their teacher’s explanations, they understand that means the person is not receiving visitors and should not be disturbed..
Some days, the children bring boxes of books and read to their Senior Buddies. "One day a little girl came out of a room very excited, and exclaimed, ‘I just read to beautiful Mary,’" Thomas recalled. The teacher went into the room to see to whom the little girl was referring..
She found that Mary was a 90-year old wearing a house dress that seemed to be new. Her white hair was neatly combed and kept in place with a pretty clip.
Thomas believes residents prepare for a visit from he children as if they were the company they had when they were living in their own homes.
A couple of times a year, the residents go to Brayton Elementary School to be with the children they call their Junior Buddies.
"They come in wheelchairs or use walkers and canes, and some walk in on their own," said Thomas.
Sitting in the library or cafeteria, children and seniors enjoy playing Bingo or working on an art project. An octogenarian told of a little girl helping him play Bingo. "My sight is not very good, and when certain numbers were called, the little girl - I’m not good with names - would point to my card and say ‘You have that here, cover it up,’" he said.
Gilman has discovered that some of the children who have particular difficulties in school find strengths in what they can do when they interact with seniors. "Children that worry you academically or emotionally tend to have an engaging way of reaching out to elders."
The children so like befriending the seniors, that those in Thomas’s first grade class hope that when they are promoted to second grade, they will be assigned to Gilman’s class so they can continue participating in the Senior Buddies Program. "The children form strong and fast connections with the seniors," said Gilman.
And the residents are apparently fond of the children; they keep mementos of their visits, affixing to cork boards or walls of their rooms, the cards, paintings, etc. the children have given them.
"Some residents never have visitors," said Thomas. "And to see them smile, hug a child or say to a child, ‘I’m glad you came,’ makes worthwhile all the time and effort we give to the Senior Buddies Program."