Gwendolyn Smith stood in front of a few Braden River Elementary School first graders and was transported back to her 40 years as a teacher.
Smith, a client at Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee’s Daybreak Adult Day Center in Lakewood Ranch, read aloud “The Cool Bean” as the students followed along.
After reading a few pages, first graders Lilly Titus and Eze Kouam-Kamdem, took turns reading aloud for all the students and "grand-friends" at the day center to hear.
“I love those kids,” Smith said. “I’d go over (to Braden River Elementary School) to teach again without pay. They were very well behaved, and that means they have good teachers.”
The first graders’ trip to Daybreak Adult Day Center March 20 is a part of the school’s project-based learning program.
Tammy Peters, a first grade teacher at Braden River Elementary, said the grand-friends project bridges the age gap between students and seniors.
“We wanted students to really understand where their grand-friends were coming from and how we can show empathy and care for them,” Peters said.
They discussed the differences between children and adults and read books such as “Mr. Putty & Tabby” books to learn more about what it’s like getting older.
Maribeth Phillips, the president and CEO of Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee, said the nonprofit was thrilled to have the opportunity to partner with the elementary school and provide an opportunity for clients to engage with children.
“It brightens their day,” Phillips said of the clients. “The continuous relationship is just adorable.”
Throughout the school year, 85 first graders have been exchanging written letters with 59 clients at Daybreak Adult Day Center. The letters help the students develop their writing skills to ensure their handwriting is legible.
They’ve also had video calls where the first graders asked each of their grand-friends questions to get to know them better.
The first graders went to the day center in December to sing holiday songs and bring craft supplies such as paint, paint brushes and canvases for clients to use. For Valentine’s Day, the students sent the seniors Valentine’s Day cards.
The read aloud March 20 gave students an opportunity to see their grand-friends again while enjoying books provided by Embracing Our Differences, a nonprofit based in Sarasota that uses art and education to celebrate diversity.
Titus said she’s loved getting to know her grand-friend. Titus has learned her grand-friend has two cats and a few other pets. She enjoys writing letters so she can ask her questions about her cats.
Peters said first graders are always looking toward the fence by the day center and screaming to their grand-friends.
“The kids love it,” she said. “They’re so excited to come over and see them.”
Phillips said hearing the elementary students on the playground from the day center’s patio is “happy noise” to the clients’ ears. She said the partnership is invaluable.
“It is so precious to them,” she said. “Having that beautiful little voice and getting those letters means so much to them. This is all part of successful aging for our program and keeping them engaged. You hang around with young people, guess what, you feel young. It’s a wonderful collaboration.”
Phillips said the successful aging aspect of Daybreak Adult Day Center includes social activities such as the grand-friend partnership. She said it provides excitement and entertainment.
Before the end of the year, Peters said the first graders will draw a picture of their grand--friend and write about the person they’ve developed a relationship with over the school year.
Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.