By Joe Salas
A pen-pal program between members at Greenwich House’s Center on the Square Senior Center and the kindergarten and first graders at Village Community School (VCS) has shown that despite decades of differences, life in the Village can still be a uniting factor.
Joan Silinsh was born in Mexico City and briefly lived in Texas until the early 1960’s, when a publishing career at McGraw Hill brought her to New York. For 56 years, she has lived in the same apartment just south of Houston Street, where she has seen her far west side neighborhood, and neighbors, change.
Once industrial corners have come to life with cafes, galleries and restaurants. Dock workers and squatting artists have given way to a new wave of families, including many of those enrolled at VCS.
At VCS, students live their learning though active experiences that make connections between their curriculum and the world they live in. For kindergarten and first graders in Social Studies class learning about different type of communities—the home, the school, the neighborhood—that meant engaging with their own school community.
In January, each class began a pen-pal relationship with a senior from Greenwich House’s Center on the Square Senior Center, including Joan Silinsh. Writing collectively over several exchanges, the classes asked their senior pen-pal myriad questions to get to know them—from what their favorite color and sports teams are to how long they have lived in the neighborhood and what it used to be like.
Each response seemed to strengthen the intergenerational bond. The students and seniors liked the same sports teams. They both liked to read. They liked to dance. They enjoyed relaxing in the same park. They got ice cream from the same parlors.
“It really closed the gap between people so young and us seniors,” said Silinsh. “I think it really helped show that us seniors are active, viable community members, just like them,” she continued.
The pen-pals were more than just letter writers though. In February, they exchanged Valentine’s Day cards. Later, the students visited the senior center to sing songs for the center members.
The intergenerational relationship culminated with a visit by the seniors to VCS at the end of the school year. The students presented the seniors with flowerpot center pieces to brighten up the lunchroom at the senior center they’d earlier visited. Others participated in an encore singing performance. For their part, the seniors talk to the students, read to them, and, of course, answered more questions about life in the Village.
“This isn’t busy work,” said a VCS staff member. “We want this to be meaningful to the seniors and the students. We especially want to help the children see that everyone, including seniors, are a vital part of the community.”
Judging by the reaction of both groups, including one senior who was brought to tears during the kids’ song performance, it seems the program has worked.