Volunteers of America Northern Colorado Services office does not often get inquiries from kids hoping to volunteer, let alone requests to serve at the senior congregate meal program. The Volunteer of America’s Nutrition Coordinator in Northern Colorado, Erika Graber, was surprised to get a phone call one day from a teacher at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, asking about serving opportunities for a small group of learning-disabled students.
While Erika was excited to get the students started volunteering, she was a little bit unsure of where to put them. The environments at many of congregate dining sites are calm and somewhat low-energy, and Erika didn’t want to overwhelm the clients with a group of high school kids. However, Erika had a seemingly perfect volunteer opportunity for the group on Tuesdays at one of the smaller dining sites at a senior living facility Loveland. The group would have the site all to themselves on Tuesdays and would be doing everything including checking clients in, making beverages, serving the food, and washing dishes after the meal.
The first day Erika met the group at the dining site, things went a little differently than planned. There seemed to be, almost literally, too many cooks in the kitchen. Some of the clients became frustrated and overwhelmed, and certainly didn’t hold back in expressing that to Erika. She patiently tried to explain to them that the students were just learning how the program runs, and they would adjust after a few times serving. However, a few of the clients just simply remained unhappy about the introduction of so many new faces to their quiet dining site.
Erika decided to hang in there with the group and, after a few weeks, a harmony began to develop between the seniors and the students. The relationships that developed between the two completely different generations were truly remarkable.
When visiting the site, Erika said she constantly saw things that made her smile. Students were showing pictures of their prom dresses to seniors on their iPhones and seniors were showing pictures of their family members to students on their iPhones. There was constant laughing and joking. The students would bring their lunches and eat with the seniors after they served them. One client gave one of her favorite jigsaw puzzles to a students as a gift because they had discussed how much they both love puzzles. And on the few Tuesdays when the students couldn’t volunteer because of testing at school, the clients would ask, with concern, where they were. The student visits seemed to become a regular, exciting event that the seniors looked forward to.
On the last day the students served lunch at the site before summer vacation, they made dairy-free brownies because so many of the seniors at this particular site don’t eat milk products. There was a slight somber feeling that day at the site and there was a lot of talk about how much everyone appreciated everyone else. Seniors were hugging and kissing students on the head and saying how much they hoped the teachers would bring another group of students back in the fall.
Getting these students involved at the dining site has been the most rewarding experience with Volunteers of America to date, Erika said. It was amazing to see two generations come together, develop a better understanding of one another, and bond over photographs, jigsaw puzzles, and lunch. While Volunteers of America always aims to create a positive experience for both clients and volunteers, in these moments when the two mesh so well Volunteers of America is truly at its best.