May 18, 2014 by

A snowball fight was the perfect antidote to cabin fever for a group of 2nd- and 3rd-graders on an overcast, 11-degree winter afternoon.

But this particular snowball fight had some peculiarities. For one thing, it took place indoors, with children darting under tables and behind the two rows of their seated opponents. The snowballs were balled-up socks tossed gleefully but with mild restraint at the challengers. And some of the most spirited combatants were well past retirement age, disregarding such hindrances as oxygen tanks and wheelchairs.

“I don’t care how old someone is, a snowball fight brings out the child,” says Kathy Hughes, activity director of Life Care Center of Omaha, which hosted the one-of-a-kind bout. It served as the recreation portion of a monthly visit to the center from Hartman Elementary schoolchildren that also included a more subdued seasonal craft and reading activity. The hour-long visit represented a facet of Omaha Public Schools’ Adopt-A-School partnership between Hartman and the senior care facility located only blocks apart in their north-central Omaha neighborhood.

“I think it’s our duty to reach out to the school in our neighborhood and support it,” Hughes says.

Hartman Elementary Instructional Facilitator Karen Spurgeon originally initiated a relationship with Life Care Center while taking college classes in administration at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Almost seven years later, students clamor to participate in the visits and all grades are involved, from kindergarteners who offer hugs and climb up onto seniors’ laps to 6th-graders who recognize the value of life experience and savor the opportunity to engage in deep conversation with representatives of ‘The Greatest Generation.’ “We’ve had this relationship for so many years that they’re comfortable here,” Hughes says of the young visitors.

“We put up a sign-up sheet and we used to do one class, but so many people want to do this now that we had to double up on classes,” Spurgeon says. The mini-fieldtrips give the children a change of environment (and some exercise when the weather cooperates since the center is within easy walking distance), and they even get to enjoy a tasty snack while they’re there.

“It’s kind of like going to Grandma’s house,” says Hughes. “And Grandma always has treats, so I make sure we always have great treats, too,” Hughes says. “Everyone loves an outing.”

The visits are also designed to be educational, Spurgeon explains. After the snowball fight and art activity was over during a recent visit, the students settled into practicing the skill of reading out loud from a book of their choice. Children learning English as a second language worked one-on-one with residence partners. Others paired up or took turns reading in small groups. A handful of children read in character from a play with a senior friend gamely joining in to voice the part of the evil queen—a gender-bending portrayal enhanced by his booming voice. One resident even took on the role of reader, reciting to a youngster who listened intently and offered only an occasional, gentle correction.

Although the primary educational purpose for the schoolchildren’s visit is a chance to demonstrate their reading to “adults who can give their undivided attention to the children,” Hughes says, the children can receive an informal history lesson, too. The seniors enjoy telling students about their own youth, their families, and their former careers.

“The residents are so hungry to learn and to talk to new people and be exposed to different situations,” she says. “They love to tell their stories, and every one of them has their story to tell. And we have a lot of retired teachers here.”

The residents seem energized after the Hartman visits, Hughes adds.

“We call it ‘children therapy’,” Hughes says. “It’s very therapeutic to be around young people.”

The visits also become a great social opportunity for everyone involved.

“It’s good for children to be around people that don’t look like you and I; they’re around different races and different ages, and it’s so good to expose children to a variety of people,” Hughes says. “And the children are from different backgrounds. It’s good for us to have that multicultural experience, too.”

Through the Adopt-A-School partnership, students learn about community spirit and how to be a good neighbor.

“Kids count,” Spurgeon says. “They are important, and they are part of the community just like everyone else. We’re trying to teach that you have to give back to your community. In one hour you can make a huge difference in somebody’s life.”

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