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Generations fill the gap

When Parrott Middle School students get together with residents of Brooksville Healthcare Center, both groups learn a lot.

Nellie Woodward's eyes sparkled with delight as she watched her new friends, Danielle Morris and Devyn Lashley, walk through the doors of Brooksville Healthcare Center.

"It's so good to see you again," she told her young visitors. "I've missed you. We all have missed you."

Across the front lobby of the center, Glen Wilson waited patiently as seventh-grader Ben Levesque strolled off the school bus and walked toward him. Offering his hand, he beamed a wide smile.

"Everything been okay?" Wilson asked the 12-year-old. "How are you doing with your motorbike?"

Casual talk can be a refreshing change of pace when you don't engage in it very often. But that simple pleasure was probably the greatest gift that the Parrott Middle School students brought on their second visit to the center.

Indeed, most of the 35 students in Nicole Cupaiuolo's advanced geography class consider themselves fast friends with the residents of the center, people they probably never would have made contact with had it not been for a class project called "Generations Learning From Each Other".

"It's been a good thing for all of us," Wilson said. The 48-year-old resident has been at the center since a motorcycle accident six years ago left him paralyzed from the chest down.

"Most of the people who live here don't have a soul to talk to outside of this place," he said. "I think the kids' taking an interest in them has made them happy."

That, of course, was the aim of the project, said Cupaiuolo, an energetic first-year teacher at Parrott who saw an opportunity to tie together classroom teaching with a bit of real-world experience.

Cupaiuolo said the project began last fall after a class discussion about world history. She was amazed that few students had any concept of how much the world had changed in the past few generations. And few students said they had much contact with people older than their parents.

Cupaiuolo contacted Brooksville Healthcare Center and asked for permission for the students to write to some of the residents. Center director Joan Poole upped the offer by saying that not only could they write, but they also were welcome to visit.

Meanwhile, Cupaiuolo also applied for and received a $300 grant from the Hernando Education Foundation to pay for a new garden for the residents, as well as a student-sponsored party at the center.

Before their first visit, the students wrote letters of introduction to each of the residents and informed them about the project.

Finally, the day came for their first visit. Admittedly, some of the students were skeptical about how they might be received.

"Because we're kids, I was afraid at first they wouldn't like us," 13-year-old Jermica Drayton said. "But it turned out not true. They love to talk."

Seventh-grader Riese Irvin spent several minutes talking with World War II veteran James Stewart about Stewart's favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, and seeing Babe Ruth play.

"He was the best," the octogenarian said. "The best."

Heather Trotter and her friend Christine Curtis enjoyed listening to Anita Hatch talk of her childhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., and how much the world has changed since she was a girl.

Both students returned with their class three weeks later and accompanied Hatch to see the flowers they had planted along the sidewalk.

"I think most people have a bad view of kids today, and it's not fair," said Hatch as she sat with the teenagers. "These kids have been so polite. I think it's good for them to get to know older people so they can share the things they have in common."

Cupaiuolo is pleased that most of the students say the visits have been positive. The students have kept journals of their experiences, and several say they want to continue visiting the residents during the summer.

"They are at an age when they can be very self-centered," Cupaiuolo said. "I think this has helped them to see that their world doesn't end where their personal interests end."