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Building Bridges: Giggles, Smiles, and So Much More

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Nobody likes the long waits we sometimes face to see a doctor, but it can be especially hard for young children to “sit still and behave.” Now, thanks to Building Bridges, an intergenerational partnership between the Penn Memory Center and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a lot more giggles are emanating from the waiting room in the CHOP Primary Care location in South Philadelphia. Perhaps, even more important, older adults are feeling needed.

“Retirement can result in a loss of purpose, and it’s not always easy to find a volunteer opportunity, especially for those experiencing cognitive difficulties and who wish to work with children,” said Felicia Greenfield, MSW, LCSW, executive director of the Penn Memory Center, who found this out firsthand when one of her clients was not able to volunteer because her memory problems made it difficult for her to navigate the application process.

Knowing that a collaboration would have a positive impact on both the kids and the adults, Greenfield reached out to Maureen McTamney, MSW, LSW, of CHOP’s Wawa Volunteer Services, and suggested that one of their social work interns be present to assist with the onboarding process and attend every volunteer session. “They’d support volunteers who might need it and serve as a liaison between the two groups.”

And thus, Building Bridges was born.

Today, four volunteers come to the waiting room in the South Broad Street practice every week. All have a connection with the Memory Center, either as patients, caregivers, or participants in research.

“People hear about the program through word of mouth, from flyers in the waiting room at the Penn Memory Center, or on its website. Older adults from the community can be accepted into the program, but our recruiting focuses on getting our patients involved,” said Lauren Zelouf, who, along with Arielle Schreier, volunteers afternoons at the CHOP facility. Both are doing an internship at the Penn Memory Center as part of their Master’s in Social Work degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

The interns help all potential volunteers with CHOP’s application process – which includes a background check and immunizations – and also interview each person, to ensure that they’re a good fit for the program. And there’s no age limit. “A retired speech pathologist who’s almost 90 is in the process of coming on board! And her caregiver also wants to volunteer so they’ll be doing it together,” Zelouf said.

If accepted as a CHOP volunteer, the participants receive a special uniform shirt and ID badge that they must wear while volunteering, as well as special training and instruction. “I believe it helps both sides – the children may not have an older person in their lives and the older adults might have no children in their lives. It’s a way to engage and learn,” Zelouf said.

“The intergenerational interaction is amazing. The joy it brings volunteers is wonderful,” Schreier added. And because all the volunteers actively sought out the opportunity, “they’re very dedicated. Even in the wind and rain and cold, they’re there!”

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One of the volunteers – Leslie Wolff – considers his participation as a way of giving back to CHOP. “I was hit by a car 72 years ago and had a compound fracture in my skull and was in a coma for six days,” he said. While he was initially brought to a hospital in West Jersey, “my father drove me to CHOP, on my doctor’s advice. CHOP saved my life.”

Wolff gets a lot of attention from the youngsters – or at least his many puppets do. “I did puppet shows when I was a kid and also used them as a way to get my children to read,” he said. Getting down on the floor to be at “kid level,” his puppets interact with the children (using a different voice for each puppet), often bringing a smile to their faces.

“Some kids think I’m weird,” he said, laughing, “while others clearly enjoy the distraction.” Wolff has both large puppets as well as small ones that are perfect for small hands, all provided by CHOP. “I try to get the kids to wear the little puppets and we have a parade up and down the room! I love the laughs – and the smiles.”

Pat White, another volunteer, entertains kids by bringing them into the world of reading. She’s been reading to kids in Philadelphia’s public schools for many years – and loves it – so when she heard about Building Bridges, she wanted to become a part of the program. A love of reading was instilled in her when she was growing up and she passed that love of reading onto her children.

“I know the children don’t want to be there. Some come in crying and then see me sitting there [at one of the many small tables] with coloring books and crayons,” she continued. “I’ll just start reading a book out loud while they’re coloring. You can tell when they engage, coloring but also listening.”

“I’m so happy we were able to create this partnership,” McTamney said. “As we evaluate the program, we’ll explore expanding to other locations, including the main hospital.”

“All of the volunteers are so happy with the program,” Greenfield said. “They like being with kids and having a place to go – it’s a sense of purpose, a meaningful activity. They’re making a difference.”

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