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Special-needs kids, retirees hit it off at Pinellas retirement center

DUNEDIN

At Mease Manor, the sound of a child's laughter is rarely heard. More often, it's pretty quiet, especially in the lobby area. It's difficult to detect even the noise of the wheels on the patients' rolling walkers as they turn slowly on the carpet. But every other Friday, the energy is cranked up a notch at the retirement center. That's when Liza Johnson's second-graders come to visit their elder buddies.

You'd never know it by their impeccable manners and how they sit perfectly still in their white uniform shirts, but the children attend Calvin Hunsinger Exceptional Center, a special school with smaller classes at 1863 Betty Lane N, Clearwater.

"They are emotionally, behaviorally disturbed students unable to socialize and get along with others," Johnson said. "They're very needy.''

But through the months, she has been astonished at how gentle the students, mostly boys, are with the residents.

"They help them walk,'' Johnson said.

The students are able to ride a public bus 2 miles from their school twice a month to interact with the Mease Manor residents, thanks to a $582 Teach for Excellence grant Johnson received from the Pinellas Education Foundation.

Johnson wanted her students to practice social skills while learning to appreciate and respect older members of the community.

She conceived the idea to bring young and old together after spending time with her mother, who had been confined to a nursing home in the months before her death. Looking around, she realized the patients got almost no visitors and it made her sad.

She also thought the experiment could help kids learn to ride a bus by themselves and increase their reading scores. It has.

On Friday, little Jaquan Maxwell opened a book titled Have You Seen My Cat? and started reading aloud to his elder buddies Georgina Ritchie, 89, and Linda Bodden, 87.

The 9-year-old amazed them with his speed.

They could barely keep up with the story.

"You go too fast for me,'' said Ritchie. "I'm old.''

Johnson said each student has to earn the field trip to Mease Manor by being good. Some don't make it.

The residents are not afraid of the students.

Except perhaps when it comes to playing cards, board games, bingo and putting puzzles together when everybody wants to win.

"They're cuter than all get out,'' Joni Haynes, activity director, said of the kids. "They said, 'You have a library? You have a beauty shop?' One of the kids said it's a mini city.''

She said the students have been instructed to call the residents their "elder buddies," but "I'll hear them say 'Grandpa' and 'Grandma'. ''

On Friday, the young and old buddies went outside to sink some golf balls on Mease Manor's putting green.

The elder buddies were all women on this day because the men who usually participate were upstairs playing Wheel of Fortune for quarters.

Grace Decker, 92, was putting at the same time as Andy Osborne, 8. Both displayed excellent form.

"I love it,'' Decker said. "I think it's very therapeutic.''

After his turn, Diego Hernandez, 8, was full of questions for a resident sitting next to him in the sun on a bench.

"How many rooms do you have here?'' he asked. Then he started to count the windows and lost track at 17.

So he switched questions.

"How old are you? Are you 100 something?'' Diego said.

The elderly woman grinned and made him guess.

"Are you 86?'' he asked. "Are you 87, 88, 89?''

She just smiled.

"I love kids,'' said Anne DiCandilo, 83, who was sitting nearby.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Special-needs kids, retirees hit it off at Pinellas retirement center 05/01/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 1, 2009 8:41pm]
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