Award winning Eskaton program connects kids and older adults

Steve Gerace
Eskaton Washington Manor resident Eileen Hall shows the flowering plant and thank you letters she received from Strawberry Valley School students as part of Eskaton's intergenerational Kids Connection program.

Resident Eileen Hall says she has been nurturing the small plant she was given when students from Strawberry Valley School visited Eskaton Washington Manor this past spring.

Eileen said it was a big deal for the kids to put the soil and plants and rocks together in small plastic cups that day.

She and the other seven ladies who met with the students each got a plant to keep, and each student got one too.

“I really love it,” said Eileen, who replanted hers into a larger ceramic pot. “It’s a shade plant. It works perfect in my windowsill. I gave it a little Miracle-Gro and now it has flowers... It brought a little green to the scene.”

Students in Mariane Tinsman’s 2nd-3rd grade class visited that day as part of Eskaton’s Kids Connection, a program that recently won the California Assisted Living Association’s “Innovations in Quality Award.”

Through Kids Connection, Eskaton is creating “intergenerational learning opportunities,” Senior Vice President COO Betsy Donovan states in a press release.

Donovan sees the program as more than “just an opportunity for kids to entertain the elderly. It’s an opportunity for true engagement and the development of real relationships.”

Eskaton says the Kids Connection program began in one community in 2009 and has expanded to involve 25 schools and 23 Eskaton communities in northern California.

Close to 650 elementary school children connected with “buddies” like Eileen Hall who are residing in senior living communities during the 2014-2015 school year.

The students and residents do a variety of activities together, such as reading books, arts projects, and singing.

Tinsman said the 23 students in her Strawberry Valley School class walked with parents to Washington Manor twice last school year to meet with residents.

The kids showed up the first time in March ready to conduct simple interviews about where residents were born and where they had lived.

They did a crafts activity and had a pizza lunch, Tinsman said.

On their second visit in late May, students asked more interview questions, sat outside with the residents while doing the plant project, then had another pizza lunch.

Gail Balzell-Long, the social services coordinator for Eskaton Washington Manor, said their corporate office pays for all the supplies for Kids Connection activities.

After the second visit, students wrote thank you notes embellished with colorful drawings that were delivered to the residents.

Eileen, who has the thank you notes she received saved in an envelope, pointed out that some of them incorporated answers she gave when she was interviewed by the students.

“I didn’t expect the pictures,” she said. “It was sweet. It made my day.”

One of the students wrote about Eileen liking rice and veggies, another wrote that she wished they were the same age so they could be friends.

Tinsman said some of the students don’t have grandparent figures in their lives and some of them “really got into it.”

“I like kids,” said Eileen. “I didn’t have any of my own.”

Strawberry Valley is an alternative program within Sisson School, and the new relationship with Eskaton fits perfectly into its goal of “stretching the classroom walls to include the greater community,” Tinsman said.

She wants to do more of it during the next school year, when most of the same students will be in her 3rd-4th grade class.

Tinsman also hopes to have some of the Eskaton residents visit their classroom.

“It’s fantastic to have the younger kids working with elders – talking to people who lived totally different lives,” Tinsman said.

In preparation for their visits, she said she talked with students about proper etiquette when asking the residents questions. They also discussed manners at the dining table.

“The kids were very well-behaved,” said Eileen. “They were very nice, wondering if they could have two pieces of pizza.”

Eileen was not yet living at Washington Manor when the students made their first visit near Easter.

When they returned in May, “The kids were excited,” Eileen said. “I enjoyed their fresh young spirits. I hadn’t had a lot of that lately. They have such a sweetness to them.”

Asked by a student if she would want to do anything different in her life, Eileen said she would have liked to be a teacher.

In an interview for this article, Eileen said she worked as a bookkeeper and secretary, mostly in California and some in Washington.

She said she was in Texas and “in a lot of grief” after her stepmother passed away in 2014. It was one of many family losses she suffered over a 10 year period. Then “a friend who lived here suggested I move to Mount Shasta.”

She was on Washington Manor’s waiting list for 10 months before she got in.

“I like the programs they have here, like the Kids Connection,” she said. “I’m thankful to Mount Shasta for having this facility for people like me.”

Eileen said she loves nature and had a history with the Mt. Ranier area in Washington. But she had only passed by Mt. Shasta a couple times before moving here.

Now she sees the mountain as a friend.

“She’s really captured my heart,” Eileen said of Mt. Shasta. “And I think I might have captured her’s too. She gave me an apartment with a perfect view of her, and there aren’t many like that here.”

Eileen said she’s looking forward to the next time the kids visit and thinks it would be fun if they came near Christmas time. “We could make gifts for the kids, and they could make gifts for us,” she suggested.

Teacher Tinsman said, “We’re thinking next year about possibly playing games with the residents, maybe bingo. The kids love games.”

Eskaton’s Donovan sees the Kids Connection program as a way to “increase resident socialization and satisfaction, introduce children to new educational stimuli and build (Eskaton’s) identity as a vibrant organization involved in creative, multi-generational endeavors that inevitably further its social accountability.”

For more about the Kids Connection and other Eskaton programs see the website:

Eskaton is a northern California-based, nonprofit organization with more than 45 years of experience. It provides services and support for nearly 14,000 individuals per year.