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Peace Village residents and Sandburg students form beneficial friendships across generations

Jo Eberhardt, Anthony Marotta, Martyna Wiertelak, Alex Takuski, and Thaer Mohamad enjoy their time together at Peace Village in Palos Park.Jo Eberhardt, Anthony Marotta, Martyna Wiertelak, Alex Takuski, and Thaer Mohamad enjoy their time together at Peace Village in Palos Park.When the bright yellow school bus pulled up to the door, the atmosphere among those waiting inside became charged with delight. As the 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls poured from the bus, these waiting “fellow students,” all in their 80s and 90s and residents of Peace Village in Palos Park, moved forward to greet them.

Students happily greeted the residents, carrying boxes of flowers and party supplies down to the dining room. There were hugs, handshakes and vibrant catching-up conversations.

“This is our annual pizza party, the wrap-up for our year-long project. Usually, residents come to the high school,” said Karen Fitzgerald, Sandburg High School teacher and coordinator of this Intergenerational Studies (IS) program. The monthly program has been conducted through Fitzgerald’s Academic Freshman English class for more than 13 years, resulting in eye-opening insights and unusual friendships for both residents and students.

“We love it, we love it, we love it,” says Louise Stefaniak, a Peace Village resident and an eight-year veteran of the IS program. “I was drafted by my granddaughter, who teaches at Sandburg. At first I told her, ‘No, I don’t think so,’ but I’m so glad I caved,” laughs Louise. “This is a terrific experience and there’s no homework.”

“This really wakes up your brain. Sometimes I can’t think of a thing for these projects and suddenly it all snaps together.”

Josephine “Jo” Eberhardt has been an IS volunteer for about five years and explains that Karen outlines the monthly project and then the teams of students, both young and older, get to work. “It could be an essay, a poem or a limerick.”

Submitted photos Maggie Leja is shown with Ginny Utech.Submitted photos. Maggie Leja is shown with Ginny Utech.Both sides of the age gap are impressed with the other. Thaer Mohamad, who works with Jo, said, “At first I thought Jo was going to be very calm and quiet, but she is so funny – with a lot of energy.” Matthew Petrusha loves that Kay Siemeck made planes in Detroit during World War II. “I would never have known something like that if I didn’t get to sit down and get to know her.” Fitzgerald explains that many of the Sandburg students approach the IS program with caution. “Things are so different now. There are fewer family ties. These students may not have grandparents or older relatives nearby. They may have an attitude of ‘Ugh, old people are so boring.’ After just a meeting or two, the attitude becomes very positive.  The volunteers make the students feel good, they call them the “best kids” and the students in turn model their very best behavior. These students are exemplary when they are with the Peace Village volunteers.”

As the writing assignments are completed, the students learn about life a two generations ago. Thaer laughs, “I couldn’t live without my phone,” but Sarah Bogovich relates that when resident Virginia “Ginny” Utech told her about things she used to do with her sister, Sarah was a little envious. “Ginny and her sister would go ice skating and dancing. That sounds like so much more fun than video games. This experience is getting me to change my life, to be more active, help my mom in the yard, stuff like that.”

Peals of laughter erupt from Jo’s group as they think about that limerick project. “You know how limericks usually are,” Jo smiles, pretending to be embarrassed. “It was a bad one. Let’s just leave it at that. We were all bad.” Thaer laughs, “Jo tells us about drag racing and riding streetcars, skating everywhere – that sounds pretty cool. I think Jo and her friends could get away with a lot more when they were in high school than we can.” Jo ribs back, “I know him. He’s getting away with stuff too.”

Jo, Ginny and Louise all agree that high school has certainly changed. “It’s like a college campus now. They have so many subjects to choose from. They live in such a different world than we did. The way they incorporate technology into lesson plans… well, we just tell them to put that phone away and they always listen.” Jo mentions that her high school experience was even more of a contrast as she attended an all-girls, private high school. “Oh, we learn a lot from these kids,” chuckles Jo. “A LOT.”

The Peace Village volunteers are pleased and surprised when they discover the lasting effects of their time spent. Jo says, “We were getting off the bus at the school a few months ago and two very macho boys were passing by. They recognized us, came over to say hello and gave us both big hugs. We had them a few years ago and they remembered us,” she marvels. “Now, you might think that of girls, but these macho boys remembered us!” Ginny pats Jo’s arm and grins. “Well, you’re unforgettable.”

Louise says, “These students make us happy. They make us feel well-liked, like we’re somebody. It’s like sitting down and talking with six of your own grandchildren.” Student Maggie Leja presented Ginny with a sketch and Ginny smiles, “Yes, Maggie likes to draw while we’re working.”

This experience has made student Alexze Whatley realize that “time is precious. They know a lot of stuff and have real wisdom. I’m happy that they sat down with the ‘next generation’ to share all this.” Andrew Wrobel is now considering a career working with seniors because he’s had so much fun this year. “This makes me happy. I look forward it to every month.” Maggie is ready to move into Peace Village now. “This place is beautiful! I would love to live here!”

As the pizza party winds down, student Ron Mrow turns thoughtful. “This experience has taught me patience. I’m more polite and I have better manners. This has made me a gentleman.”

For the Peace Village volunteers, charmed and delighted with the students, their stories and their personalities, he always was.

—Peace Village

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