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Making friends through music

Each week the residents of a Pinellas Point nursing home are energized with the music, dance and enthusiasm of youth.

Suncoast Manor, 6909 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) St. S, has found a connection between the generations that gives meaning to the lives of all affected.

Several days a week, children from area schools meet and play with their Suncoast Manor "grandfriends" for a few hours. The children, called the TrebleMakers, talk, play games and sing with their older friends.

"People feel that when they come to a nursing home, it is the last thing. They feel they are not needed any longer," said Michael Johnson, administrator for the Suncoast Health Center within Suncoast Manor. "But people need to be needed. These children provide that need. They encourage life through their spontaneity."

As he talked, a dozen children from the Lad N' Lass Pre-School settled in a circle on the carpet of the health center's main parlor.

Elderly residents, sitting on sofas, on chairs and in wheelchairs, watched silently as music director Kathleen Turner, who is also director of music at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, sang with the children, periodically urging them to toss balls and balloons to each other and to their grandfriends.

As the music session progressed, more residents were wheeled in to watch the group. At first many dozed in their wheelchairs. Then, one by one, white-haired heads would rise to attention as the young singing penetrated the room.

"Why don't you visit for a while with your grandfriend?" Turner urged a young girl. Shyly, she got up off the floor to approach an elderly woman sitting on a couch. In less than a minute, she was on the couch sitting close to her grandfriend. They sang softly with the rest of the children.

Gradually other children approached elderly residents, to toss them a ball, show them a drawing or just talk.

"Our whole mission is to use music as a tool to build social skills, to bridge the generations with a love-based program that taps into the natural love of children and meets the needs of seniors," Turner said.

Johnson said his proof of the program's value is the reaction of Mrs. Poole when she learned that her great-granddaughter was among the singing children. "What happened was really extraordinary. She had always kept to herself and now she is more alert and always eager for the children to arrive. Something is going right," he said.

Besides Lad N' Lass, Bay Point Middle School has eight exceptional and dropout-prone students who come regularly to the nursing home where they work in the kitchen, on the grounds, in the gardens, in housekeeping and in the health center lobby.

Carlos is a favorite among the residents. He has memorized their names and how they like their coffee. On days he cannot come, the constant question is "Where's Carlos?" says Teri Trudell, the teacher who accompanies the Bay Point students to Suncoast Manor.

"Through this program, these kids have shown us skills we never knew they had," said Trudell, describing a boy assigned to the health center kitchen who, within one week and on his own initiative, learned to pack lunch trays and deliver them to the correct rooms.

Students also come from the YWCA day care program as well as from the Hamilton Disston School in Gulfport.

The intergenerational program was started a year ago and is supported through grants from the Juvenile Welfare Board and the Episcopal Church Diocese of South Florida. Suncoast Manor is sponsored by the St. Petersburg Episcopal Community Inc.

The grants cover Turner's salary, the costs of transporting the children to the Suncoast Health Center and start-up costs for a second program, called GardenMakers, Johnson said.

In this program, children from Hamilton Disston and Bay Point will work with residents in growing a vegetable and herb garden. A butterfly garden will feature the red flowers apparently favored by butterflies. Students and residents will jointly tend interior and exterior plants purchased with JWB funds.

"We are hoping the plants will act as a catalyst between the residents and the children," Johnson said.

He also is researching the feasibility of opening a day care center for children at Suncoast Manor which would allow longer-term, more consistent interaction between the ages.