CARE Program at Hayden Child Care Center brings seniors and kindergartners together. “Who’s ready to go?” Carmelite Sister Mary Patrice Matamoros asks the group of kindergarteners gathered around a table finishing up their morning snack. 

In a flash, chairs are pushed in, pencil boxes put away and 11 students at Hayden Child Care Center line up for their bi-weekly excursion across the campus of Santa Teresita in Duarte to spend time with their honorary Grandmas and Grandpas at the Bethany assisted living facility. 

As they walk, skip and hop along past the other buildings on the grounds, the students and Sister Mary Patrice --- director of Hayden --- meet employees who knew exactly where these children are going. “Good morning, Eagles!” they greet these older students. 

Children visiting seniors has been an integral part of the child care program since the hospital opened in 1967. Hayden was originally started to provide care for children of employees at then-Santa Teresita Hospital, since transformed into an extensive care facility with construction currently underway for a new elderly complex.

Today catering to families and students in the San Gabriel Valley, the school program --- preschool and a kindergarten --- boasts about 60 children from age 2-6.  Cleanly organized classrooms, inviting outdoor play areas and small groups are building blocks at any exceptional child care facility, but the Children and Residents Enrichment Program (CARE) gives Hayden a unique identity.

“We formalized the program about six years ago,” says Sister Mary Patrice noting that she and other Hayden reps researched what makes other local intergenerational programs effective and meaningful to both youth and elderly. Today, the CARE program at Hayden is structured so that every week, students of different ages meet with the residents. 

“It used to be only ‘meet and greet’ but we added interactivity to the time they spend together,” says Sister Mary Patrice. “It helps stimulate our seniors but it also challenges our students. It works for both of them.”

Indeed, as the Eagles fly into the common room at Bethany, it’s hard to tell who is more excited to see who. The children rush to their Grandmas (and one Grandpa) and the seniors reach out for a hug, maybe a kiss. The students bubble over with talk; the residents beam with smiles. After a few minutes, paperback books are passed around and children read the simple story to their senior --- asking for help with the more difficult words. 

When the story is done, it’s time for a head-to-head challenge. Organizers split the room into two groups who try to solve a hidden word (a la Hangman) on a large white board. Children and residents work together as a team to guess letters to decipher the word. There’s laughter, smiles and whispering back and forth. When they are victorious in guessing the correct word, the students jump up and down, clapping their hands. 

“The children are so joyous,” says resident Clara Cooper who has participated in the program for many years. Her own children live far away --- many in Colorado --- and her grandchildren are all grown up, so it’s a treat for Cooper to be around young children. 

“We look forward to the time when they visit,” she says. “We need their energy here. Just to be in the same room with them, bouncing and jumping, is so wonderful.”

But the children, too, are learning something important --- mainly, that people with wrinkles, the elderly in wheelchairs, are approachable and not scary. They have something to give. 

“The children also don’t mind if someone doesn’t respond to them right away,” says Sister Mary Patrice. “We grown-ups tend to turn off when someone isn’t responsive, but the kids don’t see that. They just accept that that person hears them regardless of if they get an answer.”

The program has also extended beyond the school walls. Parent Maria Alvarez has sent her three children through the program and her youngest is a current student. But when son John attended three years, he created a special bond with his Grandma Mary Jo that continues today. 

“There was something those two had, maybe because both of their birthdays are in October,” says Alvarez. “She would give him books, rosaries. We regularly stop by and visit her these days. Maybe bring her a cupcake or something. She only remembers him; she’ll ask me, ‘Who are you?’ but she immediately recognizes John. She loves to see him.”

“I am so supportive of the program,” she adds. “Yes, there is a big age difference between the kids and the seniors, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be great friends. They are learning mutual respect.”

Back at Bethany, the students and residents are playing one last game --- finding a hidden green envelope and then rearranging the words inside to create two sentences. They work together, piecing the words like a puzzle, trying one way and then another. For their efforts, the students receive a prized sticker, and the seniors get a happy child.

When it’s time to say goodbye, the emotion in the room is genuine. The pairs hug, exchange gentle kisses and clasp hands. The energy in the room quiets as the students line up and wave goodbye; the seniors seem exhausted (in a good way) from the stimulation of the 45-minute visit. 

Back in their classrooms, the students meditate on their visit and why they enjoy spending time with their Grandmas and Grandpa. “Because you get to play,” says James. “You get to give them hugs,” offers Ben. “We like to play games with them,” explains Andrew. 

But Isabella sums up the experience to a T: “We go to keep them in good company.”

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