Creating a community of learners

on March 2, 2011

Natalie Kay takes time every Thursday to drive from Oakland to San Pablo to meet up with a friend and talk about computers. A self-described cell phone “geek,” 25-year-old Kay says she’s been making the commute for the last three months to spend one hour with 68-year-old Francine Hall talking about computers and technology.

“She wants to archive some documents, some news stories, and photos. We already put her pictures on her computer,” Kay said, as the two worked together on a drizzly Thursday afternoon. “We got to get her to trust the computer to delete the photos off the camera.”

Wearing a white sweatshirt with a the face of a cat imprinted on the front, Hall kneeled down on the living room floor and put her glasses on to take a closer look at the photos she had uploaded during last week’s session.

“Oh, there they are,” she exclaimed. “I remember that one and that one.”

Kay pointed to different photos on the large monitor as Hall inched closer to the screen. Her goal is to show Hall how to navigate through her photos using a new tool: the mouse.

“No, find the pointer. Where’s the cursor?” Kay asked, remaining patient as Hall continued to get comfortable with maneuvering a mouse for the first time.

Since their first meeting three months ago, the pair have set up the PC inside Hall’s home, installed photo software, uploaded photos off a digital camera, and are looking at purchasing a transcribing program. “This machine has been sitting here for almost two years,” Hall said. “I have something I’d like to do with it. I have an idea, a little bit, of what a computer does. I keep asking Natalie a lot of questions about it. She clarifies things for me.”

“Natalie is the perfect person to teach somebody,” Hall continued.  “I look forward very much to these meetings.”

Kay and Hall are just one pair that meet up once a week as part of the Elders Learning Community (ELC) program, a Richmond-based volunteer learning project. The program was founded in 2005 and is funded through the Mental Health Services Act Prevention and Early Intervention program, in collaboration with Contra Costa Mental Health, a division of the county’s health services department.

ELC Volunteer Natalie Kay points out the different parts of the mouse to learning participant Francine Hall during their weekly meeting in San Pablo, part of the Elders Learning Community project.

The seniors choose individual areas of learning or creativity to engage with a volunteer “learning partner.” So far, the project has paired more than 75 elder participants with professional volunteers within the community. Depending on what the participant is interested in studying—such as art, history, astronomy or technology—learning partnerships are paired based on common interest and personality type. The learning meetings take place in participants’ homes once a week, typically in one or two hour blocks. The program serves seniors in El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Richmond, and San Pablo.

“It’s a small program and it’s also a community-based program,” said Amy Rock, ELC’s program manager. Rock has worked with the elder community in Richmond for the past 11 years assisting in care management for seniors at another agency.ELC uses the human educational model. It means learner-centered—you start with the interest of the learner,” said Rock. “It means that the learner self-evaluates so there’s no external judging.”

“We’re trying to develop community based on learning and creativity. It starts in the center with the individual and then self-sustained interest and they connect with others interested in the same things,” she continued.

But the program, she said, is “still a little bit in its inception. It would be great if we were better resourced.” In other words, the program could use more funding from the state, although the state is mired in a financial crisis and is facing severe budget cuts.

“It’s been a bit of a challenge,” said Rock. “Every year there’s a new economic problem that ends up affecting everything. That ends up affecting your funding sources and then private foundations and everything. It ends up affecting volunteers, the economy. It’s been a slow build because of the timeframe.”

The nonprofit ELC program works with the Contra Costa Mental Health division, but also depends on funds from private foundations including the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, a local foundation that awards grants to programs benefiting the arts, education, children and families in Contra Costa County; the True North Foundation, a private foundation in Grass Valley who continues to be a longtime funder for the ELC for many years now; along with the Richmond Soroptimist Regional Club, a peace and human rights organization. With the funding from those outside foundations, Rock was able to hire staff to help recruit volunteers and do outreach to participants.

A group of 15 people including volunteers and participants of the Elders Learning Community gathered at the Richmond Art Center for the program's monthly arts and crafts day.

“I initially came to the program wanting to do volunteer work,” said Paula Burch, who is now the center’s program manager, and who works to recruit and select other program volunteers. Burch says to find talented individuals willing to volunteer she visits art outlets and venues. “I hold talks at classes at the Richmond Art Center and at Contra Costa College,” Burch said. “We’re trying to outreach to people that are interested in the arts, whether it be painting or writing.”An interest in the arts is not the only prerequisite. Volunteers must be at least 21 years old, able to give at least a six-month commitment to their senior, and provide three references and an up-to-date resume.

Curtis Dalton has been a volunteer with the ELC for the last seven years and has participated in ten learning partnerships, instructing seniors on how to sketch, paint and create art with pencils. He says that he’s seen how the program enriches the participants’ lives by continuing to enhance their skill sets, building on their strengths and interests one at a time. “I had one student and the medium was pencil. We had a lot of fun working with pencil, but then I started introducing her to color pencils and from that I took her to pencils that are like watercolor pencils. So I eased her slowly into three different mediums, but she enjoyed it,” Dalton said.

The learning didn’t stop with his 95-year-old participant, Carnell Rogers, he said. “From that, it extends into the family. I’ve had some members of the family would come join that felt they couldn’t draw. It does help the community. It’s a great tool,” Dalton said.

At 70 years old, Dalton is more passionate about art than he ever has been. He’s able to teach others different artistic mediums based on his own experience as a self-taught artist. “I’ve learned a lot about myself. Art exposes you and makes you expose yourself and be confident in yourself. When you have confidence in yourself, it’s easier to give,” Dalton said. “You’re not afraid of criticism. The stronger you become, what’s centered in yourself, the more that you can give out. I like that.”

The learning partners often become close, which means there is sometimes heartache when partnerships end early because of a senior’s ill health or death.

“I’ve had two students this year. One I still see and the other one I don’t because of health. That’s the biggest problem,” Dalton said. “I’ve had students on respirators. Whatever time they can give me I appreciate and realize just to muster that amount of energy and time … I try to really honor that and sometimes they make their transitions so…” His voice trails off as he looks down and begins to rub his hands together while taking a moment to collect his thoughts.

Although most partners meet at the senior’s home, they can also gather at other locations like the Richmond Art Center, which hosts a monthly arts and crafts session. These monthly sessions are known as “learning communities” and allow learning partnerships to meet, socialize, and work on art projects together.

ELC volunteer Isabel Lenssen (L) demonstrates the different types of artwork to ELC partipant Frank Teng and his wife, Evelina during the Elder Learning Community's monthly crafts meeting at the Richmond Art Center.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a group of seniors and participants gathered at the center’s ceramics studio to create, discuss, and engage in art. Tubes of glue, bottles of glitter, stacks of colored construction paper and an array of fun, vibrant materials blanketed the table in the middle of the studio. A group of about 12 were enjoying snacking on popcorn and sipping lemonade while decorating wooden picture frames.

“Art is for everybody,” said Isabel Lenssen, a volunteer with ELC who was dressing the table with an assortment of supplies and tools for seniors to use on their art projects. A retired art therapist, Lenssen lives in Berkeley and commutes to Richmond once a week to meet with her three senior participants and once a month to facilitate ELC groups at the art center.

Lenssen holds a master’s degree in art and says there is a deeper significance to these monthly craft sessions. “They’ll get talking about their children or great-grandchildren, so there’s a social aspect beyond just doing the activities,” Lenssen said. “It just sort of grows. You can put some material out there and people start to interact with one another, share ideas on different projects.”

For seniors and their volunteers, the bonding happens when they’re able to connect and teach each other something new either about a common interest or about themselves.

“One of the things I really appreciate is the things I’ve learned from them,” Lenssen said of the older people she’s worked with. “These ladies, in their elder years, were used to more stuff like this [arts and crafts] when they were growing up. They didn’t watch TV or play video games. They worked with their hands and they have a whole lot of skills and they don’t even give themselves credit.”

Nearby, 73-year-old Richmond resident Annice Blodgett has spread an assortment of homemade fashions onto a table for others to look at. Since childhood, Blodgett has created jackets and coats. Her latest accessory: women’s fashion hats.

ELC participant Annice Blodgett teaches other partipants and volunteers how to create hats like these at the Learning Community arts and crafts meeting at the Richmond Art Center.

“I sell my hats. It takes about an hour and a half to make one hat,” Blodgett said. “I taught Isabel how to make hats. I’ve taught some other people. I’ve been making hats for a good fifteen years.”

Picking up a leopard print hat, she examined it closely. Blodgett suffers from Parkinson’s disease and uses a wheelchair, but she says she doesn’t let her illness affect her productivity. “It’s an outlet for me to get out of the house. I come here every month,” she said.

Adjacent from Blodgett’s hat corner sat Curtis Dalton’s partner, Carnell Rogers, who at 95 years old is the oldest person in the group. Rogers is an avid sewer, but on this particular day, she was decorating a wooden frame.

“I’m not sure what picture I’m going to put in here,” Rogers said as she glued on ornate loose buttons she’d gathered from home. “This works my fingers. I did the roses over there.” Rogers pointed to two posters across the studio with a crimson rose in the center of each. She has been involved with the ELC program for about a year. She says she enjoys the group because it’s close to her neighborhood in Richmond and gets her out of the home in between frequent visits to the doctor’s office.

“It’s a nice, nice fellowship. It keeps my mind busy doing something that I thought I couldn’t do,” Rogers said. “And it takes me away from the regular routine of everyday. It’s something different. I learned I could do what I thought I couldn’t do.”

Rogers had long enjoyed sewing and embroidering but never thought too much about art. She figured it wasn’t for her. She said she realized her own potential when Dalton taught her how to sketch and draw. “I surprised myself when I saw what I did. It’s quite interesting to meet with other people who are interested in the same thing,” Rogers said. “I learned I could do what I thought I couldn’t do.”

ELC partipant Carnell Rogers, 95, searches through the container of beads for the perfect addition to her wooden frame during the Learning Community arts and crafts day at the Richmond Art Center.

In addition to arts and crafts projects, the program also finds volunteers interested in collaborating on other kinds of projects like writing, researching history together, or understanding the universe through astronomy.

One pair of learning partners is working on writing down stories from the life of 71-year-old Richmond resident Jean Barnes. Since last October, Barnes and partner Lynn Stelmah, also of Richmond, have been sitting down together for an hour every Thursday to go through stories and memories from Barnes’ past. “We’re working on filling in the details to her autobiography,” said Stelmah.

Stelmah uses the hour to ask Barnes questions about her life, her childhood, and what time of her life affected her most. “Jean grew up in Mississippi in the ‘40s, ’50s, and ‘60s,” Stelmah said. “We haven’t talked a lot about what was going on in Mississippi at that time. We’ll probably talk about that a little more. I think what I’ve learned is that it’s a challenge for me to come up with new prompts.”

Stelmah, a recent retiree who had worked at UC Berkeley, had just finished an autobiography class at Cal when she came across an ad in the paper calling for volunteers for the Elders Learning Community. She thought this partnership would be the perfect fit. “A couple of years ago, I lost my mom, and my dad had already passed away. I was helping out at the assisted living residence in Walnut Creek where my mom had been living,” Stelmah said. “I really enjoyed being with those folks and hearing their stories.”

ELC volunteer Lynn Stelmah looks on as her learning partner, Jean Barnes reads from an autobiography during their weekly meeting, part of the Elders Learning Community project.

Barnes said now was the time to sit down and document her life, which includes having nine great-grandchildren and 25 grandchildren. “Going over my childhood, I didn’t think I could remember stuff that I forgot. It’s good to remember where I came from so I know where I’m going,” Barnes said.

During her lifetime, Barnes worked as a nurse for 25 years. She said she has seen things she’s never talked about. “If you’re sitting around not doing nothing, put your life on paper and tell other people about it,” Barnes said. “It will help you get over being lonely. If you have the time to think, it’ll come back to you.”

Barnes said an advantage of the program was being partnered with Stelmah. “She helps me and I help her,” she said. “It’s a good way to meet people and it helps them when they help you. I recommend it.”

“It goes both ways. It truly is a win-win for everyone involved,” agreed Stelmah. “We’re going to need more programs like this because there’s going to be a whole bunch of people my age, all those Baby Boomers. We’re going to want the same thing. We’re going to want to stay engaged, have people to talk to, and have a community.”

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