June can be a melancholy month of goodbyes in city schools, with some students graduating and teachers retiring: it can be a bittersweet ending of one chapter so that a new one can begin.
It’s that way at Vital Grandin Catholic Elementary School this month, as beloved long time teacher Diana Groten retires, leaving behind the legacy of a program that has united students, seniors and community. While the teacher, this year’s crop of grade four students and a handful of seniors say goodbye to the Reading Buddies program, there’s every hope this intergenerational bridging of literacy, sharing and care will live on.
Almost 10 years ago, elementary teacher and the school’s faith liaison Groten came up with the idea of bringing interested local seniors from Youville Home into the classroom. The plan was simply to create a once-a-month visit where students would take turns reading a storybook aloud to a partner senior.
That shared moment between elder and child exemplifies the magic Groten brought into the classroom, according to Vital Grandin school principal Cheryl LaBuick.
“Mrs. Groten built such a strong connection between home, school, church and the larger community,” says LaBuick. “She has created joy and acceptance among students and seniors in a seamless way, tying the generations together.”
Officially, Reading Buddies is part of the Grade 4 Language Arts curriculum, with a goal of reading with fluency and expression.
“But it goes beyond that. We’re a class community of learners, encompassing faith, hospitality and learning how to treat others with respect. The kids just never knew that was my master plan,” laughs Groten, adding that she hopes whoever takes the program over sees that bigger picture too.
“But I’ll bow out gracefully, and move on to new adventures. It’s time to travel with my husband, spend time with grandchildren and volunteer at Youville Home myself.”
For the seniors, it has also been much more than a simple outing for one morning a month.
Youville Home spiritual care worker Marieta Paul says “seniors often have a lack of purpose in life, which leads to a lack of meaning. Coming to the school gives them a sense of purpose; that they’re helping kids learn to read. They feel like they’re contributing.”
Popular visitor Flo Patrick, 82, (or Grandma Flo as the students call her) says she loves coming to the classroom to listen to students read to her.
“The kids are kind and usually wait their turn, but I do feel bad when they sometimes fight over me,” she says.
For 71 year-old Arnie Hendriks, the monthly visit, complete with cookie, juice and song, brings back memories of when his own children were young and learning to read.
This year has been tremendous. We don’t get little ones coming to the home very often. For some of us, the grandkids are far away, so we feel lucky to have these little ones to meet and to talk to.”
It’s as much a benefit for the students, who glean a bit of life wisdom, and practice patience when portering the seniors and wheelchairs between bus and classroom each visit. “Some children don’t live near their grandparents, or don’t have them as part of their everyday life, so this can fill a need for them too. They don’t even realize what they’re missing, but there’s a desire to make that connection,” Groten says.
Reading Buddies has been able to teach valuable real life lessons too, adds Groten, such as when one of the senior visitors passes away. “When that happens, we talk about how we’re here for a time and that death is sad, but life goes on.”
Grade 4 student Teagan Biag says he liked having someone listen to and compliment his reading, but mostly “it just feels good, like a grandparent is visiting. But really, it’s kind of like making new friends.”
As she holds back tears in the corner classroom at Vital Grandin, watching her Grade 4s sing a goodbye song to the circle of seniors for one last time before the school year ends, Groten talks about what Reading Buddies has meant to her.
“For me, it has tapped into what I think permeation of faith is about in schools. Having opportunities like teachers do to talk with kids – really talk and share on important things – is what I’ve loved so much about teaching. Just reaching kids with ideas like: You have an opportunity here to bring joy to these seniors who visit us; people who may be missing their families and longing for some company.
“So seize the opportunity. Be present, make eye contact, reach out and shake their hand and let them pat your hand or shoulder. You are making a difference … it’s the small things with great love that make the difference,” she says.