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Students and seniors share stories, skills — and time

SOUTH TAMPA

When Alex Blustein sits down with his elders for a game of dominoes, he can predict the outcome.

"I always lose,'' he says, laughing and shaking his head. "They love beating me.''

Whether losing at dominoes, playing the piano or helping with a computer problem, Alex and fellow juniors from Tampa Preparatory School spend an hour and a half each Monday evening with the residents of Grand Court Tampa, a high-rise retirement community at the intersection of Bayshore and Gandy boulevards.

They call themselves "Students 4 Seniors,'' and they are a big hit with the residents, especially because Alex and Josh Robinson, both 17, are impressive pianists.

"These kids? I think they're wonderful,'' says Bettye McDonald, 80, listening to Josh play. "They're good musicians, but they are two of the most polite young men I have ever met.''

McDonald takes a chair in the Grand Court lobby every Monday evening. "I just come and listen to them play. I make sure I'm available at that time so I can hear them.''

While Josh or Alex plays, other Tampa Prep students help residents with computer problems, setting up Facebook and email accounts for them. Others join them in a conversation. Still, more play dominoes.

"They tell really great stories,'' says student Astrid Skjaerpe, 17, ''and that's what I like the most.''

Josh, taking a break from the piano on a recent Monday, says he enjoys the weekly recitals. "Now, more often than not, I play the piano for a majority of the time, and just like this right now, a whole bunch of people will gather around to listen. I like to be able to entertain them, to bring them something to look forward to on Monday nights.''

Students 4 Seniors started out as a Tampa Prep community service day project in early 2011, Alex explains.

He and several classmates visited Grand Court to help residents with their computers. On the bus ride back, he says, the students talked about how much they enjoyed the experience and decided they should make it a weekly routine. They plan to continue the visits through the summer, when school is out, and Alex hopes to keep it going with successive volunteers "forever and ever.''

His relationship with his grandfather, 93-year-old Daniel Deutsch, inspired him to start the project, he says.

"He loves hanging out with me, and I love hanging out with him.'' Alex figured "this is something I could share with other senior citizens.''

About 15 students take part in the volunteer effort, with three to six appearing each week.

"The residents really took to them,'' says Kim Wozunk, resident programming director of Grand Court Tampa. She credits Alex for organizing the volunteers and keeping the project going. Even when he is out of town, Wozunk says, Alex is on the phone with classmates, making sure that someone will be there on Monday evenings.

"He is phenomenal,'' she says.

Grand Court held a celebration for their young friends last month, awarding each a red T-shirt emblazoned with "Students 4 Seniors'' and presenting a plaque of appreciation for the school.

The students get a lot out of the visits, too, says Alex.

"They share stories with me, whether it's history or whether it's their personal lives, they're just unbelievably fascinating,'' he says. "It's a whole different time they tell us about that to us seems so distant, yet they actually lived it.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813)226 - 3435.

Students and seniors share stories, skills — and time 05/17/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 17, 2012 5:30am]

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