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Every GrandPal is a story

Written on January 15th, 2018

[caption id=”attachment_16783” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] Students in the Grade 5/6 class at Orangeville Christian School visit with their GrandPal.[/caption]

On the first day of the school year one of Kristie Walraven’s students asked if the class would participate in GrandPals again. The intergenerational program is growing in interest, and its creators received the 2017 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching.

“The students love this program,” Mrs. Walraven says. As her Orangeville Christian School (OCS) classroom has both Grade 5 and Grade 6 students, she runs the GrandPals program every other year.

The intergenerational program is a cross-curricular, experiential and service-based project where students are matched with a senior. During weekly visits to a seniors’ centre or nursing home students learn about their GrandPals’ lives and document their biographies over two months.

Mrs. Walraven learned about GrandPals when she was completing her teaching bridging placement in Marc Mailhot’s classroom at Montogomery Public School in Orangeville. Mr. Mailhot, who is also connected to OCS as a parent and board chair, was creating GrandPals at that time. He invited her to use it in her own classroom, and she since used it in her class three times.

Principal Rick Schenk joined OCS this school year. Though he hasn’t seen GrandPals in action yet, he appreciates how the program makes such strong connections with the seniors and makes the learning meaningful, which translates into excitement about the education.

At the beginning of the program students learn about big ideas and keywords such as ageism, dignity, stereotypes, respect and prejudice. At their weekly visits to the seniors’ centre students take about an hour asking their GrandPal biographical questions that focus on various life stages, from infancy to maturity. Within each stage questions are grouped into themes such as daily life, dreams, family members, and world events. Students take turns each week with one asking the questions and the other recording notes. Through these visits they learn how to be a good listener and also about their GrandPal’s life.

When her class went to the seniors’ centre for the first time, Mrs. Walraven didn’t realise there were two entrances—one for the Avalon Care Centre, where long-term care residents live, and the other to the Avalon Retirement Lodge. She mistakenly entered the long-term care side. Though unintended, Mrs. Walraven has continued to take each class to the Care Centre as the residents often don’t have visitors. Mrs. Walraven doesn’t preplan the GrandPal and student pairings, and she says God’s work is seen in the personalities and interests of the matches.

Mr. Mailhot appreciates that at OCS the class continues to partner with the long-term care residents. “They are going to the most isolated and the people that get the fewest visitors, so isn’t that like Jesus? I love that, and we should be looking for opportunities like that every year,” he adds.

When they come back to OCS after their visits, the students unpack their conversations with the class. “They realise these people have a story to share and they are so excited with what they come back with,” Mrs. Walraven says. “They forget that these people were kids so when they hear the stories of them being kids, or teenagers, or getting married, it just blows their mind.”

During their visits, the GrandPals sometimes bring photos to show the children or memorabilia—one man was an engineer and brought some of the drawings he had done, another brought photos and medallions from his time serving in the war.

Throughout the weeks OCS students work to create a Lifebook that documents and illustrates their GrandPal’s life. Students also create a portrait of their GrandPal from a photo. During their last visit, the students give a copy of the book to their GrandPal and play games and enjoy snacks together. Because many of the long-term care residents cannot travel, this is a more low-key celebration than the community gala celebration that others doing the GrandPal program may plan. When it is time to leave there are always tears, as the students and seniors have formed a special relationship.


[caption id=”attachment_16781” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] The weekly GrandPal visits become a highlight from both the students and seniors involved.[/caption]

Mr. Mailhot, a teacher himself, received the 2017 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching along with colleague Lynda Brown. The award recognizes teachers that inspire other educators and students and those who strive for excellence in Canadian history education.

Mr. Mailhot began developing GrandPals in 2009 when his school was focused on eight character traits including kindness, empathy and compassion. As students looked at biographies and talked about heroes that highlighted various traits he wanted to do something that could be applied in the community. A colleague suggested taking the class to the local seniors’ residence to apply some of the traits, and he did, for two months.

During that time, one boy in the class “morphed into something completely different,” Mr. Mailhot recalls. While in the classroom the student was using his strengths in ways that didn’t work, but in the context of the seniors’ residence he took leadership and approached a senior who was cognitively able but due to a stroke was nonverbal.

“I was blown away by the transformation I saw in that kid, and he just needed that opportunity which was completely different than putting him at a desk in a classroom,” he says. “That was my moment of truth. That’s when I was hooked—I didn’t really know where I was going next I just knew I wanted to keep creating these kinds of opportunities.”

Mr. Mailhot started to add components each year, and as other teachers saw the merit in the program and partners came on board. The program continued to evolve and over the past few years his students have produced a full book of stories, with historical pieces included, of a quality that they are archived by The Dufferin County Museum and Archives.

At the core of the GrandPals program is storytelling. “That’s why I think we received the award—because they are truly extraordinary stories and they are connected to our Canadian heritage as well,” Mr. Mailhot says. The award also validated the pedagogical approach.

“Somehow, in this day and age, we have students who are disconnected from their heritage yet inundated with information. In my mind, there’s a problem,” he adds. “I’m trying to recapture some of that through my work with students.”

[caption id=”attachment_16782” align=”aligncenter” width=”960”] OCS students smile with their GrandPal.[/caption]

When reflecting on their time with their GrandPals, many OCS students mention how interesting it was to learn their life stories and memories. They also note the visits brought joy to their GrandPals and they learned how to interact with elders. Some students have continued to visit with their GrandPals after the program.

“GrandPals is a great experience because you learn about the past and they teach you valuable lessons to learn from and reflect on,” says Grade 7 student Alexia. She appreciated learning about her GrandPal’s life and early days in New Brunswick. “She always had a lot of cool stories to tell,” Alexia notes.

Mayah says the relationship with her GrandPal helped give her more respect for the elderly, knowing they’ve accomplished great things in their lives. “I appreciate the way my GrandPal was always happy to see us,” she says.

Mr. Mailhot also has stories of how the program has impacted his students’ lives—such as one who had traumatic brain injury. The child’s therapist couldn’t break through, but suddenly could because of a conversation he’d had with his GrandPal. The senior shared about losing his friends in the Second World War, which caused the boy to tell his story. The two shared such a bond that the student’s final art piece was a cross, with his story on one side and the GrandPal’s on the other. The GrandPal kept that cross in his hospital room and, after he passed, it was displayed on his casket at his funeral.

The GrandPals program is a perfect fit with the OCS’ vision to, “achieve growth by providing children with excellent innovative programs while partnering with our local communities thus becoming a vibrant Christ-like presence in the world.” Connecting with seniors in the community and having the students hear their wisdom and history is important, Mr. Schenk says.

“Jesus hung out with people who might not normally have partnerships or community and we are called to be community to them,” Mrs. Walraven says, noting this is what solidified partnering with the long-term care residents.

Through fostering relationships between the children and seniors, both generations learn about one another and meaningful relationships are formed. The students develop a broad range of skills while discovering how to relate to their elders.

“I don’t want people to think its just a project—transformation can happen,” Mr. Mailhot tells the OACS News. “We’re not just educating minds, we have to be educating hearts too.”

All the Orangeville seniors’ residences now have a GrandPals program in place. Mr. Mailhot presented the program at the Ontario Libraries Association conference and this May will be leading a Tamarack Institute webinar. Mr. Mailhot notes there is an opportunity to move GrandPals from a missional focus to a discipleship program in Christian schools to encourage conversations between youth and elders about God. These resources could also be replicated for church use. If this is something you are interested to develop for your classroom, Mr. Mailhot can be contacted by emailing him: mmailhot@ugcloud.ca. More information and videos about GrandPals can be found at grandpals.ca.