Inaugural Intergenerational Summer Camp

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Last week I got the chance to speak with Mr. Brice Harris, a retired man living in Pasadena, California. Harris is a resident of the Villa Gardens Retirement Community, where people live independently or with assisted living. Before retiring, Harris worked as a college professor, teaching at Occidental College, and is now an active and enthusiastic member within the Villa Gardens community.

This summer, for the first time ever, Harris and others had an idea to launch an intergenerational summer camp. The participants would be residents of the Villa Gardens Retirement Community and students from the nearby Jefferson Elementary School, only a fifteen minute walk away. Usually summer camp conjures up images of big blue lakes, and noisy, rambunctious twelve year olds (and a hard-working, dedicated kitchen staff http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tzvi-miller/summer-camp-in-the-kitchen_b_10250908.html), but Villa Gardens and Jefferson Elementary are coming up with a new model – Camp Villa.

Unlike some elementary school programs that go on field trips to retirement communities to bring cheer and happiness to the elderly, Harris and other residents living in Villa Gardens are doing their part to bring new and special ideas to the younger generations. If we return to the traditional summer camp model, the residents of Villa Gardens are the counselors, and the 3rd grade students at Jefferson Elementary are the campers.

This inaugural intergenerational summer camp is not the first exchange between Villa Gardens and Jefferson Elementary. Over the years, people living in Villa Gardens have gone to the elementary school to tutor and work with students. Harris pointed out that quite a few of the Villa Garden residents were teachers or professors at some point, so apparently the shine and appeal of teaching never dulls, and helps everyone “stay alive”.

The uniqueness of this camp is of course the age difference between the campers and the counselors. There are eight and nine year old campers playing croquet and going on field trips to nature centers with eighty and ninety year old counselors. My first question to Harris addressed this reality. I was curious about how the kids felt about being around old people. Did the residents get any weird questions? Were the kids afraid or hesitant to interact with the older generation? The answers I received surprised me.

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According to Harris, not only were the kids excited about coming to Villa Gardens twice a week, but they were completely engaged with their eighty and ninety year old counselors. No funny questions, no fear, no suspicion and no anxiety.

When further prompted, Harris said he too was surprised at the openness with which the kids interacted with “dopey old people like me”. When I asked him why he thought that was, Harris said it was hard to say.

Perhaps it is the teaching background of many of the residents. Having made the jump from nineteen year old university students to ninety year old retirees, maybe nine year old schoolchildren is not much of a stretch. Yet not everyone who lives in the Villa Gardens community partakes in the activities of Camp Villa. There are different sectors within the larger retirement community, including those who live in assisted living, who would have a harder time keeping up with the kids. However, those who do not go out and join the activities still sit out and enjoy seeing the kids run about.

For those who are more active, like Harris, hosting 18 nine year old kids five days a week would be overly taxing, so Camp Villa runs only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and, in this inaugural first season, is only in session for the month of June. Like other camps, Camp Villa organizes field trips (last week they went to a nature center, that the kids loved), and brings in outside instructors for special electives. For example, last week, the camp had a swimming program with visiting instructors from a nearby university.

The camp also conducts its own activities with internally run activities. Generally, in the morning some of the more active residents of the community run discussion sections on fun topics. A retired physicist who used to work at California Institute of Technology ran a program last week called “How Big is the World”. These are meant to be exciting, lively sessions meant to inspire and excite the students, and is not, according to Harris, just another name for summer school.2016-06-23-1466640486-6709339-FrontPorchCampVillaBriceHarristeaching.JPG

In the afternoon, following a lunch prepared by the food service team at the Villa Gardens community, activities such as ping-pong, swim, dance and story time commence. The broader goal of the Camp is to get the kids thinking, moving and interacting beyond their own world, but of course the Camp is mutually beneficial, for the same can be said for the Villa Gardens residents.

When I questioned Harris as to why Villa Gardens decided to host a summer camp for over a dozen 3rd graders, he did not have an elaborate explanation. He simply said “Villa Gardens wants to be a more active participant in the neighborhood, and help broaden the horizon of the students”. We as a society tend to exempt retirement communities from community involvement, but perhaps Camp Villa, in their effort to inject themselves into the heart of the youth community, is an example of why we shouldn’t.

Another interesting element of Camp Villa is that the residents and the campers come from remarkably different backgrounds, and do not share a common culture, religion, era or ethnicity. At a few different points in our conversation Harris emphasized this difference. The people residing at Villa Gardens are predominantly, if not all, Caucasian retirees. The students are almost all, if not entirely, Latino. For many of the kids, the camp offers an opportunity to dive into a completely different summer world. Sleepaway summer camp for many of these kids would not be an option, so this kind of camp, where the kids get fun activities and trips, and are provided lunch, is a welcome opportunity.

Harris made clear to me though that the goal of Camp Villa is not in any way related to social work within the community. He wants personal business to remain personal business, and that Camp Villa was solely a place for fun and interaction for the campers and the retirees. So far, Camp Villa has experienced much success with the residents, the children, their parents and the school. Networks such as ABC and NBC have provided coverage of the camp, and though camp has only been in session for one month, the elementary school already has a waiting list, with parents eager to experiment with this new type of summer recreation.

When asked if he had a future vision for Camp Villa, Harris said that he would love to have the camp again next year, and would only increase the font size on his fliers around the community, because residents complained that the type was too small to read.

Tzvi  Miller …. Huffington Post

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