On a recent Sunday afternoon, 15-year-old Erika Spivack sat next to 93-year-old Betty Light, searching online for any information she could find about Light. First stop: ancestry.com, where she unearthed an item as valuable as any buried treasure.
“Did you go to East High School in Denver?” Spivack asked Light.
“Yes, I went there,” Light replied.
“I found your yearbook,” Spivack said, her voice rising in excitement. “Is this you?”
There on the computer screen was a copy of the Angelus, the 1939 yearbook of East High, where a 16-year-old with dark curly hair smiled at the camera. Although the hair was a different color, the sparkle and life in the eyes was familiar.
Spivack turned the laptop to Light, who just could not take her eyes off the screen.
“Yes, that’s me,” she said softly and then, after a moment, she smiled.
Spivack and Light are part of Tracing Roots and Building Trees, an intergenerational program held monthly at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. The group, which consists of 10 Tucson Hebrew High students and 12 Handmaker residents began meeting in September. For nine months now they have been lunching, talking and working on an art project that will be permanently installed at Handmaker later this month.
Tracing Roots serves a dual purpose. For the teens it’s a way to become familiar with older adults and their issues. For the seniors it’s a way to encourage socialization.
“It’s a way to provide a forum for the youth of today [so they] can have a place to interact and get to know seniors,” says Sharon Glassberg, the director of the Coalition for Jewish Education at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. “The real benefit to seniors is that it also helps [alleviate] the loneliness and isolation that seniors feel by creating these relationships.”
Glassberg came up with the program with the help of Angela Salmon, who runs the Adventure Bus and is development coordinator at Handmaker. She acknowledges it’s hard to get people to share without some type of structure and that’s where Tracing Roots comes in.
“What I was hoping would happen and has happened is that a lot of times — and I think this goes to anybody of any age — they need a formal forum [to help] get started,” Glassberg says. “It might be a little intimidating to think about going to any sort of facility where there are older people but what has happened is our students really feel like part of the Handmaker community.” For the teens it really seemed as if “there were no wheelchairs. There were no walkers. It wasn’t a facility anymore. It was a Shabbat table,” Glassberg says.
Every session begins with lunch in the dining room with Handmaker residents, followed by a discussion around a particular theme, beginning with, “Getting to Know You a Little More.” Partnerships were formed “organically,” Glassberg says, by the third session as people got to know each other. Other themes included “Nationalism/National Allegiance,” “Tracing Our Roots” and “What Is Freedom to Me?” After the discussion there was an activity and after that, the pairs worked on the art project.
The art project, a grove of trees of many colors, is the visible culmination of the nine months the partners have spent together. All the participants have been creating a family tree, but not just lines on a page with a name. They each have already crafted a tree trunk and have been diligently cutting out leaves, one for each of their relatives. Each partnership’s leaves has its own shape and color, such as blue oak leaves or purple maple leaves. Seniors’ leaves are darker and the teens’ leaves are a lighter shade of the same color as their partner’s. Each leaf is about four inches long. After family member’s names are printed on each leaf, the trees will be assembled and become permanently installed on the walls of “Main Street” at Handmaker. Artists Marianna Pegno and Ukiah from the Tucson Museum of Art, designed the project and have been helping direct the work each week.
After the discussions, the activities and the art project work, the teens met as a group with Glassberg and Brian Litwak, a resident of Handmaker and former educator, who discussed issues the seniors might face, such as characteristics of old age and limitations seniors might experience.
Throughout the entire nine months a film crew, Onirica Productions from Bisbee, has been documenting the process and will present what they found at the unveiling of the “family tree.”
Glassberg calls the project a success.
“It’s a little bit more than I had hoped for,” Glassberg says. It’s not unusual for residents to invite their students back to their rooms to continue the conversation or for both teens and residents to tarry just a little bit longer. “It’s really developed into more of a personal relationship than I ever thought it would,” Glassberg says.
Across the room from Spivack and Light sat another pair, Natalie Feldman, 15, and Gloria Lindsman, 88, also working at a computer and looking for Lindsman’s family. Sometimes they also find treasure, this time simply in each other.
“Natalie is a nice, quiet girl,” Lindsman says. “She’s a good listener.”
“I enjoy coming here on Sundays,” Feldman says. “It’s fun. My family has heard a lot about Gloria.”
A reception for the public, with the unveiling of the art project and a screening of the video, will take place from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at Handmaker, 2221 N. Rosemont Blvd.