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Two programs help Pinellas teens, seniors form grand partnership

DUNEDIN

Some children stare into space when their grandparents offer advice or tell tales of when they were young.

But there's a group of children in north Pinellas County who want to listen to the older generation and go the extra mile by "adopting" area nursing home residents as their "grandparents."

They do this as part of two programs: Grand-Kids and Close2Heart. The programs were formed in 2009 under the nonprofit group Our Aim Foundation by Dunedin resident Nisha Mandani, her husband, Raj, 49, and their 14-year-old son, Ishan,

"Some seniors either don't have families or they live far away," said Nisha Mandani, 44. "One woman's only son went to college in Europe and settled there. She rarely sees her grandchildren. We want our children to become good leaders of tomorrow and especially with the most valuable and vulnerable of our society."

In Grand-Kids, children ages 12 to 18 are matched with seniors in assisted living facilities or nursing homes. Close2Heart is an abridged version of Grand-Kids and allows youths 14 and older to adopt grandparents at Suncoast Hospice.

The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America helped the Mandani family create specific guidelines under which the programs operate. And before volunteers ever step into a grandparent's room, they go through compassion training.

In the Grand-Kids program, students receive three hours of training from American Red Cross volunteers. In the Close2Heart program, Suncoast Hospice volunteers provide 16 hours of training.

The programs are being embraced by Pinellas County Schools. Students participating in Grand-Kids and Close2Heart earn community service hours and credit toward the Bright Futures Scholarship.

"I am extremely proud to witness the smiles and love of our seniors," Ishan Mandani said. "I hope we can spark many more elderly lives through this program.

"When seniors share their knowledge and wisdom, it transforms youths like me with a wealth of knowledge about the real world, which we have not experienced yet."

Randy Stigleman, owner of Accordia Woods Assisted Living in Palm Harbor, has seen these interactions in person.

"I think the program is wonderful," Stigleman said. "It's family-oriented and requires parents to accompany their children on visits. Kids have the chance to share and to hear residents' life experiences.

"I think young people may come for community service, but leave with a much warmer feeling for the residents."

• • •

Although relatively new, the program has deep roots with the Mandani family. They have volunteered for years to help shut-ins and seniors.

In 2005, Nisha Mandani volunteered with the Friend-to-Friend Grocery and Pharmacy shopping program at Morton Plant Mease Hospital in Dunedin.

When she realized she was often the only visitor some seniors had for days, she involved her son Ishan, then 9. He brought smiles to people's faces and seemed to create a unique bond with seniors.

The experience spurred her to reach out to more elderly people. Ishan, now 14, wanted to include more youths. That's when they decided to develop Grand-Kids and Close2Heart.

• • •

Training helps young volunteers better understand challenges seniors may deal with as they age, like low vision or cataracts, hearing loss, decreased muscle strength or arthritis. Smearing Vaseline on a pair of eyeglasses, trying to open a jar lid wearing mittens, and wearing earmuffs during a conversation are all part of the youth's preparation.

Six to eight Grand-Kids spend 10 weeks with adopted grandparents learning where they were born, their schooling, occupation, and how the world worked without cell phones and computers.

An activity guide is provided so the youths and seniors always have something planned together. One day they may discuss the environment and then pot a plant. Or they might simply listen to music together.

Sometimes children introduce seniors to new technology. Both often learn something new.

Near the end of the program, children create a journal honoring their adopted grandparents.

Some include snapshots of their time together. Others have photographs from the seniors' youth and information on where they attended high school or college. A few even include a pledge to follow the advice handed down.

Each album is unique. Presentation of the journal takes place before a group, creating another life celebration for that person.

Last month, the city of Dunedin recognized the first graduating class of 14 Close2Heart volunteers and 10 Grand-Kids with certificates and praise at a commission meeting.

"It's a great inter-generational program and something the city of Dunedin and its Commission on Aging is interested in promoting," City Commissioner Julie Scales said at the meeting.

"I feel you can become the best professional, but that won't mean much," Ishan Mandani said. "First we need to become better human beings who can feel the pain of others and always be ready to lend a helping hand."

. Fast facts

How to participate

If you're a student who wants to participate in the Grand-Kids or Close2Heart programs or just want more information, visit grand-kids.org or call toll-free

1-877-GRAND2010.

Two programs help Pinellas teens, seniors form grand partnership 09/22/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 8:54pm]

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