ASPEN HILL – With a quick shake of his head, Fujun Xu moves his bangs just enough to see the older man sitting next to him. Xu listens intently to what the man is saying, and then returns to his task.
Gently swirling his brush in water and then dipping it into plastic vials of paint, Xu perfects the left eyebrow on the face of his pumpkin. Then Xu’s attention is again focused on 62-year- old Larry Hartnett as Hartnett explains what it means to be humble.
Since moving from China two years ago, Xu, 14, has been learning about the American culture from his mentor. Xu and about 12 other students from countries including Jamaica, El Salvador and Chile participate every week in the Intergenerational Bridges program through Parkland Middle School.
“It is like a big family,” Xu said. “They are nice and kind.”
The program pairs poor immigrant youth and adult mentors to develop the student’s social and communication skills. More than 120 Bridges mentors since 1990 have helped more than 150 kids from about 30 different countries.
Bridges is one of four programs coordinated by a non-profit organization called Interages, which promotes and creates interaction between the two generations. Since its inception in 1986, Interages has influenced the lives of almost 20,000 Montgomery County senior citizens and children, program officials say.
“There has been a definite isolation between these two groups, and by bringing them together, we are doing something incredible,” said Marcia Levy, executive director of Interages. “I think it is a resolution of the biases…. There is a real affection and relationship that is created.”
Hartnett, Xu’s mentor and a Bridges mentor for six years, agrees that he develops a special relationship with each protege.
“All the kids I have had are really responsive,” he said. “It is very important to listen, because they just want to get it all out.”
Jed Feffer, who teaches English as a Second Language at Parkland, encourages his students to participate in the program to get individual attention — something he is unable to give during the school day.
“They just need someone who cares and can spend time with them,” Feffer said. “The kids don’t always show how much their mentors mean to them, but they wouldn’t keep coming back if they didn’t.”
Interages Program Director Barbara Hammack said that for a Bridges program to succeed, there must be “a creative teacher and principal that realize how important programs like these are.”
The Bridges program and the other Interages’ programs have been recognized both nationally and locally as successful ways of bringing the two generations together:
* Self-Esteem Through Service matches vulnerable middle and high school students with frail elders living in low-income housing. After getting to know each other, they then work jointly on a community service project that will benefit Montgomery County residents.
“These are two throw-away populations that realize they can give something to each other and they really form relationships,” Hammack said.
* Dialogues Across the Ages has elders join high school Social Studies classes during lessons with intergenerational implications. Issues usually include privacy and freedom of speech guarantees in the Bill of Rights, changes in the American family and education concerns.
* Project Share stemmed from an idea to saturate adult day care centers with kids at least three times a month. Instead of having one school shoulder the responsibility, Interages assigns at least three schools to each center.
Winter Growth Adult Day Care Center in Olney has been involved with Project Share since 1993. Winter Growth’s Activity Coordinator Rose Weidner said the residents consistently remark upon how much the young people bring them to life and make them feel needed.
“In our day-to-day work, we don’t think about other groups, and seniors especially have been forgotten,” Weidner said. “Bringing the generations together is so vital, and then to facilitate something like this is just brilliant.”
No one Interages program is more successful than the others, Hammack said, because in the end there must be a shared commitment among all participants. “If a teacher, principal, activity home or an Interages staff member is not excited about a program, then it is not going to work,” she said. “It is definitely a collaboration effort and everyone has to share in the vision.” -30-