Family Friends Environmental Health Intergenerational Projects
EPA's Aging Initiative
In the fall of 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched a campaign, titled the "Aging Initiative", to study the effects of environmental health hazards on older persons, and, in turn, to examine the impact of increasing numbers of older persons on the environment. The project also features an intergenerational component, with emphasis on training older volunteers to share information about environmental health concerns with the youth in their communities. This particular focus of the Initiative was a complement to the overarching mission of Family Friends, and offered another opportunity for the Family Friends model to evolve.
The EPA had previously funded the National Nursing Center Consortium (NNCC), an association of nurse-managed health centers across the country, to develop teaching and workshop materials about environmental health problems, and to demonstrate how these concerns affect the larger community. The NNCC worked with AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers in presenting this information to targeted communities. The NNCC curriculum, known as RADICAL (Real Actions Directed to Improving Children’s Health and Lifestyles), is designed to encourage young people to become more aware of environmental health issues in their own communities. The training materials focused on the following areas:
- Effects of second-hand smoke;
- Dangers of lead poisoning and carbon monoxide,
- Hazards of toxic chemicals, and,
- Techniques to prevent and control asthma attacks
Three Family Friends programs in southeast Pennsylvania realized how effective the Family Friends construct could be in addressing the intergenerational challenges of the Aging Initiative. These programs--Bucks County Schools Intermediate Unit #22 in Doylestown; Elwyn, Inc., in Elwyn; and the Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning in Philadelphia--adapted elements from the RADICAL program to develop a series of interactive projects designed to help children become more aware of environmental health issues.
Elwyn, Inc. developed a series of workshops and interactive sessions for the students from the Second Chances program in the Davidson School and the Alternatives Schools Program—both institutions for children with special needs. The students took part in an intergenerational project with residents from the Riddle Village Retirement Village, and the Glen Riddle Assisted Living facility. Horizons Unlimited, a local agency that develops supplemental materials for educational curriculum and intergenerational activities, designed the teaching tools the students used, covering the issues outlined above.
Alternatives Schools Program
Fifteen students from the Alternatives Program developed a film on environmental issues. The students researched environmental health topics, learned how to use a video camera, and went on to use the video equipment to tape their research sessions. The children visited Riddle Village bi-weekly, discussing possible storylines for the film they would be producing, writing and editing the final script for the production, and general fellowship with the Riddle Village residents. The students also worked closely with a drama coach to shape their communication techniques and social skills, who in turn monitored the specific therapeutic goals outlined in each student’s behavioral plan. To prepare for the film, several Riddle Village residents went to the children’s school. The children designed programs, decorations and cards, and prepared refreshments. They wrote short stories and poetry about themselves to share with their special visitors.
For the final piece of the program, the Children’s Environmental Health Extravaganza, the students presented their play to the residents of both the retirement village and the assisted living facility. The audience also included other students from both the Alternatives and Second Chances programs.
Second Chances Program
Two classes of 75 students from the Second Chances Program were selected to participate in the EPA project. Like their counterparts from the Alternatives program, the Second Chance students researched topics relating to environmental health concerns, and shared their findings with residents from the Glenn Riddle Assisted Living facility. The Glenn Riddle residents were also invited to make a special visit to Second Chances, to participate in the school’s award ceremony.
Using the knowledge they assembled from their research, the students created a PowerPoint CD presentation using formats from popular game shows such as, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". The students prepared the PowerPoint content slides, designed the cover for the CD label, and presented the final product to students from both the Alternatives and Second Chances programs, as well as residents from the retirement village and assisted living center.
Both the video and CD were produced and duplicated for distribution to schools, other educational facilities, retirement communities, and Family Friends project participants. Elwyn, Inc. will continue to monitor the relationships that formed between both sets of students and residents, in the hope that these interactions will continue and flourish. At the time of this publication, one student was seeking employment at the retirement village.
The students who interacted with the residents of the retirement communities on a regular basis established deeper and more meaningful attachments with the adults, than those students who visited the facilities on a rotating basis. In turn, the residents were generally more accepting and comfortable when the same group of students returned for visits, rather than having to establish ties with a new set of students each time. Further, the self-esteem of the students who took part in the program, along with their communication, social, and behavioral skills, improved as a direct result of their participation in the project. The children gained useful hands-on training with video and sound equipment, were exposed to potential career opportunities involving the care of older adults, and were actively engaged in issues surrounding aging and environmental health.
Bucks County Schools Intermediate Unit #22
The Bucks County project focused on a group of seven high functioning autistic students at the Goodnoe Elementary School, with volunteers from nearby Pennswood Retirement Village. Three goals were identified for their environmental health plan, to: (1) increase Family Friends participants’ (volunteers, parents and children) knowledge of environmental risks; (2) develop creative methods to educate others about these issues; and, (3) demonstrate that special needs children can play a substantive role in improving the environment. The program worked closely with three VISTA volunteers from the NNCC. The VISTA volunteers were a significant partner in developing activities for the project, including workbooks, posters, videos, and power point presentations for use in the classroom and for in-service programs.
With an eye toward those goals, for three months the Bucks County project devoted portions of their regularly scheduled Family Friends in-service programs to training about environmental issues, learning about environmental risks, and developing strategies on how best to present the material to special needs children, particularly children with autism. It is interesting to note that more volunteers took part in the in-service forums than actually participated in the project at the Goodnoe School. The sessions featured specific information about water pollution and second-hand smoke. The water pollution topic was particularly relevant for the Pennswood residents, as the county is facing issues with water quality management and improvements.
Goodnoe Elementary School
The Goodnoe School houses several autistic support classes and related programs. The Family Friends project coordinator also works two days each week with the Buck County Autistic Support program, and had developed relationships with the Goodnoe administrators and faculty. The students who took part in the program were enthusiastic participants, despite the initial concerns of their teacher--who expressed some apprehension about the students’ ability to maintain appropriate social interactions.
The class sessions included presentations on preventing water pollution, how to prevent asthma attacks, the dangers of smoking, and the hazards of second-hand smoke. Family Friends and VISTA volunteers were session participants. After several of these presentations, the students shared what they had learned with another class of special needs children with posters and other materials they created. The final visit to the school was a celebration of the overall project, offering the students an opportunity to share their feelings and discuss the topics they had learned.
Juanita and Marian--Pennswood volunteers
Juanita is a veteran Family Friend--one of the very first volunteers for the Bucks County program. She had two long-time family matches over the years, following one child through to graduation, while the other family moved out the area. She has been a tireless advocate, serving on the Bucks County Advisory Council, and as the program’s all-around cheerleader. This dynamic woman in her late seventies does not let her wheelchair slow her down. Marian recently moved to the Pennswood community, following a long career as a teacher. The Family Friends program is a natural complement to her skills and desire to continue to work with young people. Marian’s family match had also moved from the area, and she was anxious to remain involved with the program. These two exceptional volunteers found the perfect outlet for their talents and affinity for children by working with the students at the Goodnoe School.
To the delight of the volunteers and Family Friends staff, each of the students indicated affirmed that the project had been "fun and educational". The students noted that they "felt good knowing that we’re doing something important", and that they "learned things we should stay away from and ways to stay safe". They particularly enjoyed working with the older volunteers. One student said the older volunteers "made education fun". Another shared that the volunteers "taught us new things". All the children were interested in hearing stories from the volunteers about how different school was for them in their younger days.
The volunteers also offered a positive view, with particular mention of "how seriously the students took the project", and "how hard they worked on their presentations". The volunteers were impressed with how attentive the students had been, noting that the children "asked questions to let us know they were listening", and that their posters and presentations "reflected how much they had learned".
Traditionally, Bucks County holds a Family Friends Spring event each year for all matched families and volunteers. The 2003 Spring Carnival featured the usual social activities—clowns, games, songs, and food—but also included one room devoted to the environmental program.
This program demonstrated that the children could become involved and engaged in a manner that was even surprising to their teacher. Beyond the initial concerns she raised about the students’ ability to stay on task and demonstrate appropriate social behaviors, the teacher was also skeptical about how the environmental health materials would fit into their already established school curriculum. Further, she expressed concerns that these sessions would take away valuable class time. Not only did each of her fears go unrealized, the instructor noted that she gained new insights into other effective approaches for teaching autistic children as she observed the tools used in presenting the environmental health materials.
The project coordinator was extremely pleased with the approach by which the curriculum was developed, and praised the VISTA trainers for shaping the materials in a way that was very specific to the area, and for reflecting the concerns the Pennswood volunteers raised during the in-service sessions.
Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning
The Temple Center for Intergenerational Learning is the third partner in the Delaware Valley Consortium, and is the sponsor for the Philadelphia Family Friends project. Philadelphia Family Friends convened ten workshops focusing on environmental health concerns, with twelve children and 3-4 adult volunteers as the session participants. The children who participated in the project were drawn from: (1) the city’s kinship care program; (2) an after-school program for low-income children in North Philadelphia; and (3) children in the existing Family Friends program. Several of the children were struggling with the social and emotional challenges that often result from living with family members other than their parents. Others had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
One unique aspect of the Philadelphia project was the involvement of the director of the Full Circle Intergenerational Theatre Troupe, who served as the facilitator for all ten sessions, guiding the discussions, and overseeing how the curriculum could be adapted to work with artistic tools of expression. The first three forums presented general information about three key environmental health concerns: asthma; second-hand smoke; and lead poisoning. Strategies for how best to attach an artistic component to the presentation were also discussed during these initial sessions. The Theatre Troupe director helped the participants incorporate skits, puppetry, and other forms of art to highlight the lessons learned. The students rehearsed their skits several times following the last workshop session, performed for two after school programs, and appeared at a Full Circle Theatre fundraiser.
The involvement of the Full Circle Theatre Troupe was an inspired approach. The students were fully engaged during the workshops, interacted enthusiastically, and took pride in developing their puppet shows. This "fun learning" method served to reinforce the information presented. Life size puppets were created, as well as a power point presentation and video of the skits presented.
Perhaps the most satisfying result of the students’ participation in these workshops came at the end of each performance. The audience was invited to ask the students questions about environmental health issues, and the students responded eagerly, demonstrating a clear and solid understanding of the material. All of the children could directly relate to the topics presented—most had asthma, or a sibling with the condition; several were in households were smoking occurred; and the issue of lead poisoning is particularly relevant in low-income communities.
The project coordinator observed that while he had not been particularly fond of short-term projects--preferring programs that evolve over time with the ability to chart sustainable progress--he believed that the EPA project was effective despite those reservations. The curriculum was strong, and easily adjusted to convey the material in a manner appropriate to children with social and emotional issues.
The project was very successful in highlighting the achievements of the children, but the project coordinator noted that the intergenerational aspect of the program was not as strong as he would have liked. It was difficult for the volunteers to build true relationships in such a short time, which reinforces the apprehension about the short timeline. Working on relationship building exercises prior to beginning the curriculum might have alleviated that concern, and brought the students and volunteers closer. It was also difficult to maintain a consistent group of students from week to week, which further strained the ability to build close ties. While all the volunteers indicated they enjoyed learning about the topics, those who were artistically inclined were more engaged with the "crafty" elements of the curriculum, than volunteers without those skills.
One surprising and wonderful coda to the project: one of the students who participated in the program was so positively affected by her experience that she joined the Full Circle Theatre Troupe.
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