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Youth Commission Partners with Holyoke Senior Center

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The Holyoke Youth Commission voted to spend summer 2013 partly focusing on intergenerational work, and made some truly amazing connections.

In a brainstorm about positive changes in Holyoke last spring, the Youth Commission identified the building of the new Senior Center as a project that seemed exciting and inspired their curiosity. What began as an interest in a changing built environment in Holyoke blossomed into true interest in the history of the city carried through the unique experiences of its residents, with seniors being a critical part of our city’s story. In May, members of the Holyoke Youth Commission met with Senior Center Director Kathleen Bowler to find out how they could get more involved with the city’s senior community in a way that would be truly helpful and facilitate breaking down barriers that might traditionally exist between teens and seniors.

The Youth Commission initially suggested using the Senior Center’s new computer lab to do some instruction about social media, but Ms. Bowler told them that what senior center members really needed was some technical support with their cell phones, smart phones, tablets, Kindles, laptops and other devices—technical support that came naturally to members of a generation of “digital natives.”

The “Teen Technology Doctors” project began in early July and lasted about 6 weeks, with Holyoke Youth Commissioners setting up a booth in the Senior Center lobby every Tuesday from 11:00am to 1:00 pm. Center members coming in and out for classes and lunch were greeted by Youth Commissioners ready to assist them with any lingering questions about their portable technology—technology that can often be more intuitive to troubleshoot for teens than seniors (though we did encounter a huge number of tech savvy individuals!)

The collaboration was wildly successful. After assisting 3 or 4 members on their first day, the Holyoke Youth Commission’s “Teen Technology Doctor” booth attracted 17 people on their busiest day, and frequently had a line waiting for them already when they arrived each week. Common troubleshooting involved ringtones and voicemail, Kindle functions, and photo taking and storing in phones and laptops. While Youth Commissioners worked on fixing these devices, conversation flowed naturally about Holyoke’s history and community, about family, and about both teens’ and seniors’ hobbies and other interests. Youth Commissioners were surprised to learn, for example, that the Senior Center is built on a spot that once housed Holyoke High School, and that many residents who visited this address as high school students are doing so again as retirees.

“[The Holyoke Youth Commission] wanted to outreach to seniors because they were the past youth of Holyoke,” Youth Commissioner Karyann Cruz wrote when asked to reflect on her time at the Senior Center. “Seniors are a big part of our present and we want to compare our lifestyles. We feel like seniors and teens relate because both can be stereotyped because of their age. Since teens are younger many people may think that we can’t make a difference in our community because we are so young. On the other hand seniors can also be stereotyped because many teens may think that they are older so they can’t relate with the current things happening today.”

Karyann continued, “Before we went to the Senior Center I felt like our main goal was to help the seniors with technology. But, after the experience I realized it was about interacting and finding ways we relate to each other. Some of the best moments of each day were when we had the opportunity to sit with some of them and explain who we were and why we were there, and hear about their lives too.”

In her reflection, Youth Commissioner Dora Castillo wrote about breaking down boundaries: “Not only did I get to help people get more comfortable with technology, I also got to know some residents of Holyoke I might not have had the chance to talk to before because of stereotypes we can have of each other.”

Many Youth Commissioners expressed surprise at the ageism parallels affecting both teens and seniors, and agreed that future collaboration now that school has started will be really important. “In some ways,” wrote Dora, “we really aren’t so different from each other.”

The Holyoke Youth Commission looks forward to continuing this partnership during holiday weeks over the next year, and perhaps getting more youth groups involved. For questions about the Holyoke Youth Commission’s Senior Allies project, please contact us!