WELLINGTON COUNTY – As society becomes more focused on technology and instant gratification, many have lost touch with the value of human connection.
Unfortunately, this can negatively affect seniors, who often feel isolated and forgotten.
This is where the GrandPals program comes in, connecting children with seniors, often leading to meaningful friendships despite the generational divide.
The GrandPals Project began in 2010 at Montgomery Village Public School in Orangeville with a simple goal: providing students with more applied, experiential avenues for character development.
Founder Marc Mailhot said the program not only helps educate kids and raise their self-esteem – it’s also highly beneficial for seniors.
“There are a lot of groups in Canada that are working with older adults that haven’t necessarily made the bridge into education and to this asset-based approach to programming for older adults,” said Mailhot.
“GrandPals is focused on what older adults can bring to the students. It’s done with them rather than for them.”
Today there are multiple locations across Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The program’s mission is to create, facilitate and promote curriculum-integrated, intergenerational experiences focused on shared learning, storytelling and friendship.
Mailhot strives to meet those objectives by pairing students in Grades 5 to 8 with seniors 55 and older. His primary role is connecting with local communities to provide whatever coaching, structure and support is needed to launch new projects.
“Once we have a local team together, they get the GrandPals recruited, vetted, and equipped. The home teacher equips the students, and then they get together for storytelling,” Mailhot said.
Helen Edwards, coordinator at the Seniors’ Centre for Excellence in Mapleton and community champion for the GrandPals program, works with local seniors and finds recruits.
“We are delighted to be a part of this wonderful project,” she said.
“Seniors have amassed a lifetime of experiences and wisdom; this program offers an opportunity to share this wisdom with the younger generation and fosters valuable inter-generational relationships.”
Finding new members and convincing them to share their stories is a daunting task and requires a considerable time commitment.
“Helen puts in a lot of work and does lots of correspondence with the amazing group she’s recruited. Without the work of people like her, we wouldn’t have a program,” Mailhot said.
The Centre for Studies in Aging and Health has partnered with GrandPals and has provided funding for 2023 to 2025.
“We have a three-year runway and have a plan for adding extra locations and expanding the program every year as part of the funding,” Mailhot told the Advertiser.
The program is set up for participants to engage in discussions about various life themes, including home, family, learning, work and travel.
The end of the program is marked with an annual “GrandPals Gala” celebration, where students present their stories and artwork to the Grandpals and the community.
This year’s presentation will take place on June 15.
Teszalyn Roantree, who teaches Grades 4 and 5 at Maryborough Public school in Moorefield, first reached out to the Seniors Centre for Excellence to propose the partnership. She is working with her class in preparation for the June event.
The school’s principal, Tim Dickieson has also provided ongoing support for the project and completes the vulnerable sector checks.
“The motivation for the students is knowing that their work will go public and that it’s based on a real person… they’re usually terrified to present in public, but when asked if they’d do it again, 99% of them say yes,” Mailhot said.
The benefits for the students are clear, but motivation for seniors isn’t as apparent.
“The hardest thing about retirement is that people feel they become invisible. In your professional life, everyone sees you as having authority and importance, but after retirement, you’re suddenly no longer useful,” said Mailhot.
“It’s unfortunate and seniors often don’t recognize the value of their individual life experiences.”
Seniors involved in the project have said it’s been very beneficial for them. Not only do they connect with students, but GrandPals provides the opportunity to influence and educate the next generation.
For more information on the GrandPals program or to register, visit grandpals.ca.