Mentoring once meant the old helping the young. But these days, it's a two-way street — with teens helping elders all over Florida.
In 2004, a group of African- American ministers in St. Petersburg was looking for a way to keep some at-risk teens in the Midtown neighborhood off the streets and get them more involved with their community. Pastor Henry Payne of the Southside Tabernacle Baptist Church suggested the group take a look at The Hospice of the Florida Suncoast's teen volunteer programs in the northern, suburban part of the county.
There, volunteer high school students from Palm Harbor University High School were videotaping hospice patients, manning hospice thrift shops and delivering flowers to the dying. The same sorts of volunteer opportunities could be extended to African-American teens in the inner city, Payne thought.
The Clearwater-based hospice agreed, and the project began in December 2004 with 14 teens from Midtown who named their group the Hospice Youth Providing Encouragement (HYPE). A $52,100 donation from the Eckerd Family Foundation in mid-2005 provided funding for HYPE to start its own film project, which it calls "Lifetime Legacies."
HYPE volunteers work in pairs to produce videos of hospice patients' lives. One serves as cameraman while the other interviews the patient. The teams then edit and produce the film, often incorporating photographs of the patient and personal mementos.
New HYPE recruit Nicholas Williams, a lanky 16-year-old who attends St. Petersburg High School, spends upward of six to eight hours at a time filming and editing movies about the lives of complete strangers. Williams, whose grandfather died in 1996 under hospice care, says he enjoys talking with the elders about their experiences and working with the video and computer equipment. He recalls interviewing an elderly man struggling with Alzheimer's disease. "He couldn't remember his wife's name, but he seemed to have a real firm remembrance of playing football during high school. ... It's interesting getting old, sometimes."
Other HYPE teens have also formed what they call "cheer teams," which help patients with art projects. Some read stories. Others showcase their dancing and singing talents for seniors in nursing homes and hospitals.
Eleanor Pritchard, a widow who resides in South Pasadena in southern Pinellas County, says the video that HYPE students put together just before her 80-year-old husband, Geoffrey, died last May provided comfort in his final hours. The film also gave Pritchard additional insight into the man she had married four years earlier. "He had a couple lives I wasn't aware of, that I wasn't part of. I didn't know that much about that, and for him to have the opportunity to tell the highlights of his life, and to have that keepsake, is just priceless."
The hospice-based program is just one of many across Florida in which intergenerational mentoring has become a two-way exchange, moving beyond the reading-skill and literacy mentoring that older people have traditionally provided to teens.
Six high schools in south Miami-Dade County have partnered with the Social Security Administration, AARP and Gray Panthers of South Dade to run the Intergenerational Social Security-Economic Studies Program. The program facilitates forums where senior citizens can discuss Social Security-related issues with students, ranging from financial planning to political activism. Ramona Frischman, service-learning program manager for Miami-Dade public schools, says school officials launched the program after realizing that at least one student in nearly every classroom relied on Social Security benefits. "They're learning so much from elders -- how much it matters to be active and involved," says Frischman.
Francisco Pardo, a graduate of South Miami High School in his second year at the George Washington University, says he would have had little exposure to older generations of Americans if it weren't for the intergenerational programs he was exposed to in the Miami-Dade school system. Pardo, who is majoring in political science, says an intergenerational political forum about state legislative candidates he attended several years ago was particularly enlightening. "It was really cool because most of them were really funny and had interesting perspectives, and they were really blunt," he says.
Florida is a "perfect laboratory" for these sorts of programs, says advocate Jack Levine, because it is so economically, ethnically and culturally diverse. Currently, 74% of all Floridians over age 25 are from another nation or state, and the state inherits lots of grandparents. "We are basically a state of strangers," says Levine, founder of the 4Generations Institute. "When you don't know your neighbors and you are isolated, a problem can result in a crisis."