Robert Unruh is 84; he grew up and spent his whole life in the Goessel community. Cameron Myers is 11-years-old and moved into the school district just a few weeks ago. The two might not seem to have much in common and probably never would have talked to each other or even met if it was not for the Generation Bridge program at Bethesda Home in Goessel.
“The Generation Bridge program brings together old and young people in fun ways that benefit them both,” Goessel fifth- grade teacher Ilona Abraham said. “We’ve been doing this for 13 years now, and everyone always looks forward to it.”
Abrahams said the program begins with students writing invitation letters to Bethesda residents or elderly people living in nearby duplexes. Bethesda Assistant Activities Director Gayle Voth often makes suggestions for old and young matches for the program.
“The kids learn what Bethesda Home is all about and how to be comfortable going into a home,” Abrahams said. “They learn how to interact respectfully and appropriately with the elderly and are surprised when they have a lot of fun.”
For the older persons involved in the program, Generation Bridge offers opportunities to stay in touch with what is going on in the lives of young people, and to make a difference simply by spending time with the children.
“It’s a nice social time for us seniors and we have developed wonderful friendships with the kids,” Unruh said. “It’s amazing to me how months or even years down the road, these same kids will come up and say hi or stop in to see us.”
Unruh and his wife, Erlene, started their involvement with the Generation Bridge program in 2005, when they moved to a duplex in the Meadowlark Addition of Bethesda.
“We enjoy being with the kids,” he said. “One boy said once ‘I didn’t know you could have fun with old people.’ We thought that was pretty funny.”
Some of Unruh’s favorite Generation Bridge activities include wheelchair races while flipping pancakes (an association with Pancake Day in Liberal each February) and playing Jeopardy with Kansas facts and state information.
“I also enjoy making pepper nuts with them at Christmas,” Unruh said. “We roll out the long logs of dough and cut them up. The cooks bake them and the following week we deliver them together to other Bethesda residents.”
Abrahams said the fifth-grade students walk over to Bethesda from the elementary school each Wednesday afternoon and spend about 45 minutes there with matched residents.
“We do a variety of things,” Abrahams said. “Sometimes I like to tie the activity in with what we are working on in the classroom.”
Two weeks ago, Generation Bridge participants worked on reading skills and the youngsters read a story on training dragons to their older partners. They also discussed pet care and talked about pets the seniors might have had in their lives.
“It’s really fun just to see them interacting,” Abrahams said. “The kids learn to respect the elderly and it benefits them in so many ways.”
Each school year, the program ends with students putting together a musical program featuring band solos and vocal numbers. This year, the musical program is scheduled for May 9.
“Even after our plans are done for the year, I often hear of how these bonds that have formed continue,” Abrahams said. “Sometimes after a couple of years, these same kids come back to work here, and they like to check on their Generation Bridge mentors.”