In 1978, Children’s Family Center opened its doors on the campus of Messiah Village retirement community. The presence of a child-care center located within a retirement community was a new idea. Since its opening, Children’s Family Center (CFC) has encouraged the residents of Messiah Village to volunteer with the young children they serve. Now, over 27 years later, the relationship continues with 26 regular senior volunteers. These volunteers are known as Grand bears. The Grand bears come from all levels of care, including independent living, assisted living, nursing care, adult day services, and the Alzheimer’s unit.
The Grand bears are matched with the age of children that best suit their interests. The Grand bears volunteer with each one of CFC’s children, who range in age from 6 weeks through 12 years. The Grand bears can choose from activities such as reading to the children on a weekly basis, serving on the CFC Board of Directors, swimming with the Kindergarten class, rocking the babies in the nursery, chaperoning field trips, serving snacks, helping with arts and crafts, or periodically sharing their hobby with the children. Throughout the year, the Grand bears spend more than 600 hours of their time volunteering at CFC.
Another way that the Grand bears serve CFC is by helping the staff by giving individualized attention to the children. Grand bears fill in a gap by playing or working with the children in small groups or individually. Recently, one of CFC’s 3-year-olds told a Grand bear a long, drawn-out story about his family’s car breaking down on the highway. The teacher in the class would not have had the time to intently listen to this detailed story. The Grand bear, however, gave her undivided attention through the entire saga. This Grand bear’s presence met the immediate emotional and verbal needs of this child. At other times, Grand bears are available to comfort a crying child, teach a child how to use a glue stick, or help a small group with their puzzle.
The benefits of this program for both the children and Grand bears are numerous. However, the most important aspect of this program is the overcoming of age barriers that is a serious social problem that we in America face today. Through close interaction with the Grand bears, the children are able to form accurate views of older adults and the aging process. The Grand bears also serve as positive role models for the children.
CFC’s Grand bears consistently face challenges that are common for older adults. Several of the Grand bears are living with very serious diseases: congestive heart failure, depression, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, to name just a few. In addition, they experience visual and hearing difficulties, lingering illnesses, and lots of aches and pains. Not only do they deal with physical problems, but also many of CFC’s Grand bears have recently experienced major life challenges, such as the death of a spouse, loss of driver’s license, and family conflicts. Despite these challenges, the Grand bears are very dedicated to fulfilling their commitments to CFC and share their unconditional love with the children.