BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 11, 2012 – For more than a dozen years, the Neighbors Growing Together program at Virginia Tech has been building a community where the young team up with the young-at-heart in an intergenerational setting. Based in the Department of Human Development in Wallace Hall, Neighbors Growing Together pairs one-to-five year olds from the Child Development Center for Learning and Research with elders from the adjacent Adult Day Services program.
Virginia Tech is uniquely positioned in this research area as it is the only university in the country with a shared-site facility on its campus based in an academic department.
“We have this fantastic opportunity to foster positive contact between our children and adults and evaluate what works best,” said Shannon Jarrott, associate professor of human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and director of Neighbors Growing Together.
Neighbors Growing Together is one of seven finalists for the Eisner Prize, which recognizes excellence by non-profit organizations in uniting generations to improve communities. The $100,000 prize, to be awarded in October, recognizes “efforts to unite multiple generations – especially seniors and youth – to bring about positive, lasting changes in their communities,” according to The Eisner Foundation. The finalists each receive a $5,000 grant for being selected, and staff from the foundation are visiting each finalist to observe their work in building intergenerational relations first-hand.
The Neighbors Growing Together intergenerational program involves both planned opportunities as well as informal visits. Each semester, more than 40 Virginia Tech undergraduate and graduate students are actively involved as program facilitators, researchers, interns, volunteers, service-learners, and field study students. This effectively adds yet another participating generation to the intergenerational mix.
Jarrott’s own research has demonstrated that the adults in this program experience high levels of engagement and are positively affected when they are with the children. At an age and in circumstances where roles are taken away, the adults are afforded an opportunity to gain or maintain familiar roles.
In addition, the children have an opportunity to interact with older adults, which tends to put them more at ease and comfortable around this population. Some of the activities are designed to improve fine and gross motor coordination, while others introduce gardening or cooking projects. Whether creating an art piece or making music together, the relationships formed during this time are fulfilling for both the young and old. While short-term benefits are now apparent, long-term impacts could range from how the children participate as community members later in life, what career paths they may choose, and even how they experience old age themselves.
Last year, Jarrott’s group met the needs of both centers in an intergenerational problem-solving tactic when a high-functioning, energetic senior with culinary experience teamed with a group of five-year olds (who no longer required naps) to begin a weekly afternoon cooking project. The win-win solution was successful on many levels as the elder engaged in a challenging role reflecting his social history, and the juniors chefs enjoyed a fun, learning activity while allowing their classmates to nap peacefully.
With a proven intergenerational program replete with infrastructure, mission statement, and training manuals, Jarrott has leveraged $660,000 in federal funding to implement three new intergenerational programs for at-risk children and elders in the Charlottesville area. Jarrott is using the U.S. Department of Agriculture money to start sustainable, community programs that employ intergenerational strategies to foster skills and traits children need to succeed in life.
"The challenges facing our country are diverse and wide-ranging, affecting people of all ages. And too often, as we look for solutions, we fail to recognize the most important resource we have: each other,” said Michael Eisner, founder of the awarding foundation. “Through the Eisner Prize, we hope to inspire young and old Americans to join forces and, through shared knowledge and experience, help to better our country."
Neighbors Growing Together has garnered national acclaim on several occasions, including Generation United’s designation as a Program of Distinction since 2008 and recognition for leadership in promoting intergenerational programs in 2005, and a best practices award from the Southern Gerontological Society in 2006.