Seniors and students interact at intergenerational fair

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About 15 minutes before the Bethel County Fair, Katie Davis’ wheelchair was still broken. She had waited the entire day for someone to come to her room at Beth-Anne Place to fix it, and the repairman made it just in time.

“There was something wrong with my wheelchair, and the man came and fixed it today, I am so glad he fixed it and I could make it!” Davis said. “I am so glad I made it.  It was so nice of [the students] to put this on.”

Davis, a resident of a Bethel New Life senior citizen home, was giddy to be in the center of the bustling Bethel New Life Intergenerational County Fair Nov. 11.

“I’ve never been to anything like this,” said Davis.

The fair, held on Veterans’ Day in the Bethel New Life event room, 1140 N. Lamon Ave., was put on by eighth-graders from The Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth, Ill, as a service learning project to interact with senior citizens and students from the Austin community.

About 150 seniors, students, parents and volunteers crowded into Bethel’s auditorium. With top-40 hits echoing through the large room, senior citizens and kids played card games and bean-bag toss, socialized and danced and ate popcorn and cupcakes.

Along with residents from the Bethel housing facilities, a group of nine senior citizens from the West Side Community Center joined the festivities, including 51-year-old lifelong Austin-resident Anthony Malone. Seated at a crowded table of 10 seniors and students, Malone said he learned a new card game from one of the Sears students.

Two Sears parents, Leslie Holling and Susan Rooney initiated the coordination between the school and Bethel New Life. The two mothers, both with 8th graders at the school, said they knew they wanted to work with Bethel as soon as they found out about the organization’s mission and accomplishments.

“We were so impressed with all of the different ways that they’ve had an impact on this neighborhood,” Holling said. “They are basically in every major community structure to help build people up.”

That admiration led the pair to ask Bethel CEO Lori Vallelunga the best way for the students at Sears to come and work with the seniors and the community in Austin, and Vallelunga suggested a fair.

“This is the first time we’ve done anything like this. [The thinking was] what is a creative way to really bring the youth together from their school, and some students from our community to kind of share and have an exchange happening, and also something the seniors would enjoy?” said Vallelunga. “It’s nice because the seniors don’t usually have this many youths interacting with them.”

Chris Hall, an eighth-grader from Sears who helped provide cards and supplies for some of the other games at the event, said he was glad their community project had brought him to Austin.

“It’s really interesting; it’s nice to meet a lot of new people,” Hall said. “All of the elders are nice, so it’s nice to meet them and socialize.”

Along with students from Sears, students from Christ the King Jesuit College Prepatory School and other neighboring schools participated in the event. Several of them also participate in Bethel’s mentoring program for young people ages seven to 17.

Three Christ the King 11th-graders, Marquita Hall, Honey Macklin and Tamekia Triplett came the day before the event to put up all the decorations, and said they were enjoying meeting students from other areas.

Near the front of the room, below the stage, a circle of Austin and Kenilworth students took turns dancing and laughing awkwardly. Vallelunga looked on and smiled.

“One of the goals that I had was this,” she said gesturing to the circle. “All of the students are interacting and saying ‘hey we’re all eighth-graders, and so a lot of things are different about our lives but a lot of things are similar, like none of us can dance.’”

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