‘No mean people there at all’

Kids connect with elderly through pilot program


by Jill Ragar Esfeld
jill.esfeld@theleaven.org OVERLAND PARK — As the first quarter of the new school year drew to a close, Catholic school students all over the archdiocese turned in their “service hours,” reporting the 10, or 12, or 15 hours they spent in service to their community.

Fourth-grade Holy Cross student Selena Guerrero, on the other hand, along with fellow fourth-grader Megan Knight and Megan’s seventh-grade brother Ashton, turned in a combined — and possibly record-setting — 740 hours of service, all logged at HRC ManorCare in Overland Park.

The nursing and rehabilitation facility’s “Caring Kids” program, where kids “worked” throughout the summer assisting residents with everyday activities, was the brainchild of activities director Alixandria Ruoff.

“I just thought there’s a whole bunch of kids who are kind of big for summer camp, but not really big enough to stay home alone and keep themselves engaged in things their parents would want,” she said. “So I thought [this program] would be good for the parents and the kids, and it would be really great for my residents. Having kids around any time we can get them is something we want.”

To qualify for the program, children had to be able to complete tasks independently, follow directions, and be comfortable working directly with the elderly.

Silvina Guerrero said her daughter, who volunteered every Monday and earned a total of 100 service hours, took the responsibility seriously.

“She was always up and ready. She would say, ‘This is a job; I have to be there on time.’ She didn’t miss a single Monday,” she said.

That’s the kind of attitude Ruoff hoped to see when she initiated the program.

“I think the kids learned a lot about responsibility and commitment, and they learned a lot about following a schedule,” Ruoff said. “I really did hold them accountable about where they were supposed to be, what they were supposed to be doing.”

The children worked with residents throughout the day doing whatever the staff asked and participating in activities like exercise and bingo. Ruoff made sure the volunteers always ate lunch in the activity room where they could “shut the door and just cut loose and be loud, noisy kids.”

Ashton and Megan’s mother Sonya Simone said she was happy to allow her children the opportunity to give back to the community and was impressed with how much they were enriched by the experience.

“They came home each day and told me about how much fun they had and how they wanted to go back,” she said. “It taught my daughter especially how to care for older people and have sympathy for them.”

Megan, who volunteered 320 hours, enjoyed pampering the residents. Painting fingernails was one of her specialties.

“My favorite thing to do was to tell them they’re not regular, basic people,” explained the fourth-grader. “They’re people that get pampered, and we’re like their butlers and everything.”

Her brother, who also volunteered 320 hours, admitted to being a little intimidated when he first started the program.

“I was kind of nervous around old people at first because I thought they may be kind of mean,” he said. “But they were really nice throughout the whole summer.

“There are no mean people there at all.”

Ruoff said she had high hopes for the program, but worried that the kids’ enthusiasm would flag.

“I expected that midway through the summer they would get bored of it and want to go about the business of being a kid on summer vacation,” she said. “But that’s not how it went.”

On the contrary, the kids were so committed that they were sorry to see summer end.

“The very last month it kind of made me sad to leave all my elderly friends there,” said Ashton. “But my faith helped me. I just said to myself, ‘There’s always next summer to be with my friends.’”

At summer’s end, HRC ManorCare joined with the city council president and respective school principals to honor the first volunteer program participants. Holy Cross principal Mary Jo Gates, who attended the event, said she was “wowed” by what her students had done. “It shows that what we’re teaching our children here at Holy Cross School about serving others is going outside our school and into the community,” she said. Gates said she felt the relationships developed over the summer helped the children see that “the connections we make with other people connect us with God.”

Leave it to a fourth-grader to put it best, however.

“My favorite person was Howard,” said Megan. “He would always cry when I would hug him, and he would always say, ‘I love you.’

“And I would always say, ‘I love you, too.’”

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