Reprinted with permission from The Watrous Manitou. Originally published January 4, 2016

By Daniel Bushman

As kids head back to school this week, there are a few others who will be looking forward to their return. Residents of Manitou Lodge, located at the Watrous District Health Complex, have been able to enjoy interacting with elementary and high school students over the years.

This past year has been no exception as residents have had the chance to meet some new faces while being able to reacquaint themselves with familiar ones.

Seniors and students gather around a table

Residents of Manitou Lodge in Watrous and students from the high school and elementary school have been able to spend time together thanks to a positive partnership. The groups do various activities including games, visiting and even baking. Photo by Daniel Bushman/TWM

Recreational coordinator at Manitou Lodge, Melanie Manson said seeing the kids come to visit and help with activities has been special.

“We have always had support from both schools for many years. It is so nice to see the students here. The residents really come alive when they come. We can do an exercise program or play a game but when the students come, their energy just invigorates the people and we are really fortunate. I know other places don’t have quite the same opportunity to have students come . . . they make up a big portion of our programming here and we are excited to have them.”

The interactions began when the lodge was located at its former site, less than a block away from both schools. After a new facility was created a little further away, despite the longer distance to walk, the visits continued.

Manson said high school students participate in lodge walks during the nicer months, taking residents for a walk around the community. Then in the wintertime, they stop by and play volleyball with balloons or do curling, bowling or sometimes just visit.

Students decorate cupcakes with residents

Before Christmas, a group from Winston High School popped by the lodge to bake
and decorate cupcakes with the residents. Photo by Daniel Bushman/TWM

The elementary school is also very much involved with the residents. Manson said the Gr. 2 groups come and read to the residents or they may provide entertainment with performances. The Gr. 4 classes play bells and are partnered up with residents. The Gr. 5 group comes about once a month and plays bingo. “In the summertime they will assist when we are outside maybe having a wiener roast or taking them outside to do things.”

Manson mentioned other classes also pop by to sing or do other activities.

“Then we have our after school program which has been going for a couple of years. That is made up of volunteers on Tuesday and they do whatever activity is going on or just visit as well.”

This year there are 20 high school students in four groups that rotate through the Tuesday program.

Manson said when kids from both schools are able to come, residents have a smile on their face or will joke with them.

“The students are amazing, they are so polite and they interact with them. It is nice that they start coming at an early age in the elementary school and they get a little more used to it. They get a little more comfortable with the seniors. If they are comfortable they develop a real relationship and they will ask to sit with a specific person.”

One high school teacher who has been heavily involved with the lodge program is Denise Thoner. Currently Thoner said both Gr. 8 classes (35 students) take turns visiting the lodge to help with walks in  the summer, play games, entertain and organize one birthday month per year.

The group also helps with anything the recreation workers require. When the Gr. 8 crew is not able to make it, the Gr. 9 students head down. Thoner said about 10 years ago the lodge asked for volunteers from Winston High School to help with the lodge walks. While it was difficult to get students to volunteer because of missing content taught during the hour they would be away, about five years ago Thoner volunteered the whole Gr. 8 bunch so no curricula would be missed.

“I had been a bit distraught at the lack of volunteerism in my students that year. Well, what I saw when I took classes over that fall rejuvenated my faith in my students as altruistic individuals. The relationship that started to develop between the residents and the students was remarkable. The students truly loved them and upon arrival would rush to the side of ‘their’ resident with whom they most bonded.”

It was also during that year that the program was extended through the winter.

Much training went into the program and Thoner said along with herself, fellow teachers Gail Saelhof, Lori Bartko and other staff now take the Gr. 8 and 9 classes over.

“We have full support for the program here. As well as being trained to operate the wheelchairs safely, the lodge rec workers helped them learn to speak with the residents. The students learned about the particular strengths and needs of the residents; sight and hearing challenges. In the classroom, we spoke of our primary purpose, which was always to foster communication and relationships with the elderly.”

Thoner said she was able to see students kneel by the wheelchairs, speak loudly, ask about the health of the residents and their day and talk about the weather. “As they walked with the residents, they knew they needed to talk about what they saw on the street and ask about gardening and flowers and lawns. The residents are so very knowledgeable and the students practiced unselfish acts like always ‘feeding’ the volleyball balloon to the residents and refraining from ‘smashing’ a point across the net in favour of ‘setting up’ a resident to attempt to make the point.”

Thoner said over the years since the school has been involved with the lodge and its residents, she has witnessed unexpected benefits to her students. “The residents were enriching our lives far more than we were enriching theirs! I remember when, as an adult, I first came to visit a relative at the lodge and being nervous and frightened of the residents – not knowing how, or whether I could, communicate with them. The students will never feel that! They will always remember this experience and would be far quicker to come to the assistance of an elderly person on the street or to volunteer with the elderly. The time spent there is of great value to these young people!”

Manson echoed how positive the program has been, especially for those at the lodge. “I think we are really blessed to have that relationship with the schools and thankful that the teachers are encouraging and really make it part of their program too. It is really beneficial for us here and I think we would be really lacking in our department if we didn’t have that relationship with the students.”