It seems simple enough: Gather a group of young kids and older adults at a neighborhood center, involve them in creative activities they will enjoy and benefit from, add some smiles and hugs and – bingo — everybody goes home happier, healthier and a bit smarter.
Only, it’s never simple to bring different generations together in a planned, structured setting, even under the best conditions.
And it’s most assuredly not simple when the kids and seniors live in poverty, there’s nobody with expertise to organize activities, and there’s not even a building available to gather in. What’s more, getting a place up and running would take millions of dollars, require innovative planning and endless collaboration, and involve navigating a thicket of legal, regulatory and licensing issues.
In short, that’s what the Champion Intergenerational Enrichment and Education Center is all about and what it had to overcome. Yet seven years after it was first envisioned, the center is a reality and a lynchpin in a broader plan to transform the Near East Side. And it happened in large part because of the OSU College of Social Work and the planning, persistence and vision of Associate Professor Holly Dabelko-Schoeny, Professor Shannon Jarrott and Dean Tom Gregoire.
The first of its kind in central Ohio, the center officially opened Dec. 9 in the former Poindexter Community Building at 240 N. Champion Ave., a building that four years ago was scheduled to be demolished. Cynthia Dougherty, a PhD student in social work, is program director.
The Champion center provides preschool and early childhood education, adult day services, support for caregivers and parents, and basic medical assistance. When kids and adults get together, they might spend time reading, mixing cookie dough or planting seeds in the garden. Activities are designed to build relationships, improve health and wellness, develop educational skills in children, and create a sense of purpose in the elderly. The center will serve about 50 kids and 50 adults each day.
“The idea is to harness the power of both generations,” says Dabelko-Schoeny, who has been involved with the project since its inception.
“Programs like this provide meaning and improve well-being through engagement. They also overcome assumptions about aging and disability. And then there’s the learning component. They improve literacy, educate and train caregivers, and provide a workshop to teach students who aspire to go into child care or work with the elderly.”
Early on, Dabelko-Schoeny reached out to Jarrott, an expert on best practices for intergenerational programs and, at the time, a professor at Virginia Tech and director of research for the university’s Neighbors Growing Together program. As it turns out, Gregoire also reached out to Jarrott, eventually persuading her to join the CSW faculty and to lend her expertise to the Champion team.
Jarrott has been impressed with the planning done by the team. “It was time well spent,” she says. “It’s clear they sought input from clients and stakeholders to identify shared values and to come up with a shared mission. In a complicated process like this, voices need to be heard and relationships need to be built and sustained.”
The center is able to serve so many functions — and was so tricky to create — because of the expansive list of community, university and government partners involved. National Church Residences provides services for seniors, and Columbus Early Learning Centers directs child development programs. The colleges of Medicine, Social Work and Nursing will help develop intergenerational programming while pursuing opportunities for research, teaching and community engagement.
And then there’s the bigger picture, the plan to add housing, reduce crime, improve educational opportunities and increase employment in the neighborhood. Ohio State, the city of Columbus and the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority are key players here, all under the direction of a nonprofit called Partners Achieving Community Transformation, or more commonly, PACT.
“It’s pretty awesome to see the efforts on the East Side,” Jarrott says. “It’s exciting that the university is there. I have a high sense of confidence that residents are being heard and the university is responding.”
Oddly, the Champion center’s roots go back not to any of the three lead colleges involved, but the OSU Office of Human Resources. Concern was growing among faculty and staff about the wait for child care and the need to tend to elderly parents and relatives. An idea for a campus intergenerational center was hatched in 2008 and later fleshed out at a World Café sponsored in part by the College of Social Work and facilitated by Assistant Dean Lisa Durham. When money became an issue, the idea was expanded to include the larger community and was folded into the PACT plan.
But moving from plan to production proved difficult within the university. “Nobody would commit to it,” remembers Dabelko-Schoeny. “The problem was, Who would own it?”
Help came from Stillman Hall.
“Something that Social Work brings to the table is we have a dean who is available and very nimble,” she said. “Because Tom believed in the idea, he was instrumental in moving the deans forward. And once Medicine and Nursing committed, it got the ball rolling.”
Now that the center is open, Dabelko-Schoeny is looking ahead to research, possibly studying how kids and adults at Champion are affected by food insecurity. “The neighborhood is an 800-acre food desert,” she says. “There are corner stores around, but it’s mostly chips and cigarettes and that sort of thing.”
Jarrott hopes to develop longitudinal studies to examine how Champion and other intergenerational programs affect kids’ perception of aging. “Children in these programs tend to have greater empathy and lower anxiety about aging,” she said. “They tend to have more positive expectations of old age.”
For both women, the experience has been challenging, sometimes frustrating, and overwhelmingly rewarding. Along the way, a deep friendship blossomed. In fact, Dabelko-Schoeny’s commitment to adult day services and her passion for research played a big part in Jarrott’s decision to move to Columbus.
“Holly’s going to have a hard time shaking me,” she says.