In a world in which family has been atomized into small nuclear units, with parents and their adult children often living thousands of miles apart, pairing older people with younger ones is taking off. There’s a nursing home in the Netherlands that offers free lodging to college students who agree to interact with their elders. The Easthampton, Massachussett-based Treehouse Foundation, which has reimagined the foster care system in terms of an it-takes-a-village paradigm, invites seniors to volunteer as surrogate grandparents to foster children.
Meet Bubbie Debbie
I’m not a grandparent, but I am — to use a Yiddish word — a Bubbie. For about an hour every Wednesday morning, I am Bubbie Debbie, reader of picture books and all-around helper to an adorable class of three-year-olds at my local synagogue.
I knew that this volunteer gig would be fun and fill a gap in my life. I have no dealings with children on a daily basis. I wasn’t prepared for it to be profound. But my very first day I, while reading a picture book about art, one of the children raised her hand and repeated a word I had just read.
“Inspiration?” she asked.
“Inspiration,” I repeated, and realized that it was me — not a parent or a teacher or anybody’s real grandparent — who would explain this wonderful concept to these kids. I reached for simple words. “It’s when something give you new ideas,” I said. “Or makes you excited.”
The Reading Bubbies program at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ was the inspiration of Debbie Kravitz, herself a preschool teacher as well as a volunteer recruiter for the temple. She hadn’t heard about a program exactly like this, but she knew that childcare and adult day care were being paired in experiments around the country and she thought the phrase Reading Bubbies would be a good play on the phrase Reading Buddies.
“Every volunteer has had an incredible happy, joyous time,” Kravitz said, reporting that all of last year’s Bubbies (and Zaydees) had re-upped this year, and I was only getting my chance because three new classes had been added to the pre-school program.
Encore.org, a non-profit organization started by social entrepreneur Marc Freedman, has intergenerational partnerships at the heart of its mission. “In almost every instance, everybody gets something out of it,” says Marci Alboher, a senior staffer at Encore. “It happens in every age-to-age pairing.” And we’re not always talking about seniors and kids. One pairing has the “young old” (people in their 50s and 60s) working with the “older old” (people in their 80s or beyond), Alboher says.
Alboher herself is drawn to working with teenagers and young adults. “I’m always drawn to mentoring young adults,” she says. “I never tire of it. They keep me relevant.” Alboher serves on the board of Girls Write Now, a program that pairs teens from underserved backgrounds with professional writers. When she ran into a young woman from that program at a local coffee shop, two years after they’d worked together, they started making coffee-shop soirees a regular thing and became friends.
Alboher, 53, admits that working with young adults fills a need. “I never had kids,” she said. “That’s my sweet spot.” No surprise that, with no grandchildren on the horizon, hanging out with three-year-olds is mine.
Brian O’Reilly, a Reading Zaydee at my synagogue, doesn’t have grandchildren either. So working with preschoolers is, he says, pure pleasure: “The kids are really, really, really cute.”
Interested In Intergenerational Volunteering?
- Encore’s Gen2Gen program is a good starting place. It’s filled with volunteering ideas and opportunities that will link you to other age groups, including ways to volunteer from home.
- You can also check with your local church, school, or library.
- If you’re going to be working with young children, it’s a good idea to get a flu shot. And make sure to wash your hands after spending time with those adorable vectors of disease. If you have a compromised immune system, talk to your doctor..
- If you’re working with young adults, Marci Alboher cautions, “You’re not just there to teach, you’re also there to learn. Being a know-it-all isn’t that attractive.”