The UNH Blog

Celebrating Intergenerational Month

Friday, September 28, 2018

By: Katie Cardwell, Community Organizer & Trainer

When United Neighborhood Houses commits to promoting and supporting intergenerational work, I understand on a personal and professional level why it is important.

At the end of first grade my family moved from the neighborhood I was born in to a completely new space. It was the same town, but for a seven-year-old it was a huge change. It meant a new school come September and a menagerie of new, unfamiliar settings. However, what made this transition distinct was less the loss of what I knew and more about what I gained.

Across the street in a large house with a sprawling yard lived a woman named Eileen. Her home put our small rental to shame, but little did I know at the time that her home would become mine. She was an older adult working well past retirement age, caring for her husband with early signs of dementia, and acting as a safe-haven for her adult children and grandchildren.

Despite these circumstances, which I only fully recognized in retrospect, she became my friend. When autumn approached and the leaves turned and fell, she would hire me to rake the front yard. When the holidays came around we would swap baked goods. Whenever my parents were unavailable and I needed a place to stay for a few hours, she was there.

Being seven, then eight, then nine, and onward, the lines between “her” property and “my” property blurred and disappeared. I was as welcome in her home as any member of her own family. I got to know her older grandchildren who were kind enough to entertain a child much younger than any of them.

She was a confidant when I needed it, a supervisor when I wanted to do yard and house work and earn a few dollars, and a mentor. I learned a lot just from observing how she treated and loved her children when they struggled and from listening to her friends and their jovial conversations while I hung out nearby.

I don’t know what my move would have looked like if Eileen hadn’t lived across the street. She certainly became a pivotal influence in my life and someone whose love meant the world to me when I needed it.

I moved out of the neighborhood in 8th grade and did not see Eileen again until I was preparing to transfer to an out-of-state university. A fully-fledged adult, I showed up on her doorstep uncertain if she would remember me. Apparently, all it took was a smile from me for her to recognize me.

We sat around her kitchen table and talked for the better part of an hour. I thanked her for the love she showed to me as a child and she thanked me for letting her be a part of my childhood. She shared stories, things I had forgotten, and told me she knew I would go on to do good things and she was proud to be a part of my journey.

Since September is Intergenerational Month, I want to take a moment to highlight the work that UNH is facilitating to create more relationships like the one I had with Eileen; relationships that will carry children through adolescence, into young adulthood, and likely beyond. Relationships that will also provide a way for older adults to give back and find meaning, to leave their print on the next generation and feel empowered.

In my short time as staff at UNH I have seen this commitment play out across our member settlement houses in several ways. We are currently organizing an intergenerational program up in the Bronx with East Side House Settlement to connect older adults with pre-school classrooms and children around literacy and Kindergarten preparedness with a national program called Jumpstart.

In Brooklyn, East New York Farms, United Community Centers, and the Pink Houses Community Center have come together to promote an intergenerational farm. High school interns are paid to work on the farm alongside older adult volunteers who provide oversight and act as role models. Through this experience they come away with additional adult perspectives and valuable work experience.

Over in Queens, at Sunnyside Community Services and back in Brooklyn in Williamsburg through St. Nicks Alliance, UNH has facilitated intergenerational storytelling. The Gen2Gen programs aim to create spaces for older adults, youth, children, and other community members to talk about and work on issues that are important to them.

All this work aims to not only bring people into a room together, but to create and promote bi-directional relationships between older adults and younger people. My relationship with Eileen was bolstered by the fact she seemed to delight in me as much as I delighted in her. We had a relationship that went beyond mere transactions or pleasantries.

Older people have a lot to offer their communities, and younger people benefit from additional adult influences in their lives outside of their family. In the same way, older adults benefit from having relationships with young people long after their own children – if they had any – may be grown. At the very heart of intergenerational work is the desire to continue to build strong communities where neighbors know and care about each other, regardless of age.

We are stronger together, and that’s why intergenerational work is so important and why I’m excited to celebrate it and the work we and our Settlement House members are doing.