| Stephanie Trombley
WEST SPRINGFIELD – Elementary school students at Coburn Elementary School in West Springfield have shared their lives and learning with senior citizens as part of the Bridges Together program for over four years. Learning and developing from friendships, students had the opportunity to complete projects and listen to stories from seniors, leaving them with valuable life knowledge. On Oct. 31, Founder and Executive Director of the Bridges Together program, Andrea J. Fonte Weaver, spoke at the school during the volunteer session with students age 9-11.
The start of Bridges Together dates back to 1991, when Fonte Weaver began her career creating the Bridges Program Curricula Suite, focused on designing and implementing intergenerational programs.
The Bridges Together program unites older adults and students through discussions and projects. Each week, there is a different theme based on subjects such as a particular children’s book. Fonte Weaver shared, “It is based on the concept ‘We are always growing up and growing old.’ Students reflect on and share their own life experiences as well as collaborate on group projects. Everyone will share and learn regardless of their age.”
The Bridges Together program is close to Fonte Weaver’s heart. “I was blessed to grow up in a multigenerational, close-knit family. I was taught to value people of all ages including children and elders. I took that with me and wanted everyone else to experience the richness of it. When I learned about intergenerational studies, it became my passion and also became a way for me to do work that I thoroughly enjoy and lights up my life.”
Emily O’Brien, a Title I math teacher at Coburn Elementary School, expressed satisfaction with the program and it’s affects on the students at the school. “Having the Bridges Together program at Coburn School has been immeasurable. This program intertwines generations that normally wouldn’t be in a learning space together. People from the same community get to learn alongside one another.”
The program has proven effective in bridging the gap between generations. Each student has the opportunity to learn alongside elders. O’Brien explained, “Each week, the children long for their time with their ‘Bridges friends.’ They have gotten messy painting together, making clay models and sewing together all while using mentor texts that support intergenerational themes.”
Fonte Weaver believes that every community should participate in the Bridges Together program. “It’s important for everyone across the country to be involved. Students learn about math, reading and health. They learn about the longevity dividend.” Bridges Together focuses on the fact that, by the year 2025, there will be more people over the age of 65 than under the age of 13. “This will create a world of complexities and richness. Our students need to be prepared for that. They need positive experience and a desire and willingness to get involved and be problem solvers.”
Having a focus on a variety of cultures and customs has added to the value of the learning experience for students who participate in the program. O’Brien explained, “Each peer group brings in their own special qualities. Many of the students at Coburn come from diverse backgrounds economically and culturally. In one classroom at Coburn, it’s very common to have five or more languages represented. With that comes a variety of cultures, traditions and beliefs. The students have shared their cultures and new age learning with the senior volunteers, and the senior volunteers have brought experience and expertise to the students.”
Participating in the Bridges Together program has reaped benefits for both children and senior citizens. Fonte Weaver shared, “Having a positive attitude can increase our lifespan. It’s in our best interest. By participating in Bridges, the majority of students will have a transformation in their view of ageism. Adults who volunteer have social and emotional improvements.” O’Brien agreed, “Having this program in place provides these students with life experiences that cannot be accessed in the standard state-based curriculum. Our students have learned to be good, well-rounded citizens because of our senior center connection.”
Having a connection with elders is not an opportunity that some students may have at school, and O’Brien stressed the value of the Bridges Together program in these situations. “This program provides an opportunity for senior citizens and children to connect and build meaningful relationships that normally would not come to fruition without Bridges. If you were privileged enough to have an elder in your life, often times those memories of your time together are happy and thought of warmly.” Being a part of the Bridges Together program welcomes the opportunity for all students to build these memorable connections.
To volunteer or start a Bridges Together program in your town, please visit www.bridgestogether.org/about/volunteer.