There’s a special connection that comes from sharing in the magic of a play or a concert with a group of people of all ages, or from sitting together and learning and practicing a new skill like singing, painting or crocheting. Nothing brings people together quite like the arts.
Through their charitable organization Old School Intergenerational Projects, founders Erin Winsor and Claire Rouleau are helping to connect all ages and abilities through the arts. The endeavour is also giving the two, who met as students at the Music Theatre Performance Program at Sheridan College, the chance to apply their arts training and skills in a different way.
“We found more and more that there were purposes beyond just entertainment for the kind of skill sets that we had. And so we found that there was such great therapeutic value with children, and also with seniors, involving the arts in their lives,” says Rouleau.
One of Old School’s many initiatives is the Pen Pal Project, which connects Grade 6 students in St. John’s with local seniors living in retirement homes or long-term care facilities. The students and seniors write to each other over the span of four months and then (pending Covid restrictions) enjoy face-to-face or virtual meetings where they spend time together sharing stories and participating in activities. It’s just one of the ways that Old School is helping build connections, empathy and understanding between the generations. The fourth round of the program, Winsor says, has just begun at Leary’s Brook Junior High and the fifth round will kick off in the new year with Grade 6 students at St. Teresa’s.
A big part of Old School’s success is its focus on participatory arts programming, which actively engages participants rather than have them be passive observers. One example is their theatre experience “By the Sea,” whereby audience members are invited to explore sensory aspects related to the subject of living by the ocean through touch, scent, sight and sound. The show is funded by the New Horizons for Seniors program with the aim of making the arts more accessible for those with dementia.
“The whole idea is that Old School is very inclusive, that everybody can participate in everything,” says Rouleau.
There’s also the Reminiscence Project, which engages seniors in memory and story recollection using objects from the past, music, photos or text (these recollections are then passed on to youth, with the seniors’ permission, via social media or through their social studies content); and the Music Together Generations class, which brings together children up to age 5 (and their guardians) and seniors to participate in a fun and interactive music class. Initially, the program will be offered at Cambridge Estates retirement residence, but, Winsor says, “we hope to offer more classes at a variety of senior homes in the new year.”
Coming up in November and December, Winsor adds, Old School will be offering a variety of skill-sharing sessions (funded by the Seniors’ Social Inclusion Initiative), including skills like crocheting, creative writing, magic and card handling, and hydroponics. More details will be released in the next week or so which, along with registration, will be available on Old School’s website. (Click here to learn more about Old School’s various programs.)
Now, the organization is getting ready to take their programming on the road with the help of a retrofitted 2008 Bluebird school bus. The team is working alongside City Wide Taxi (from whom the bus was purchased) to transform the bus into an accessible and inclusive community space, which will then travel to smaller communities with limited programming and performance offerings.
“It will very much be kind of like a travelling classroom, a travelling arts studio,” Rouleau says.
While some volunteers from the community are helping with the retrofit, Winsor adds, “we will always take some extra hands to make it go a little faster!” (Any businesses that would like to have their logo appear in the window of the bus, she says, can contact them for sponsorship details.)
With the holiday season coming up, Old School is also looking at other ways of giving back to the community, through initiatives like Stock the Bus for Seniors, where they will collect unwrapped donations and gifts to distribute to seniors with limited resources and/or family.
“This will include essentials such as toiletries and personal care items, but also gift items you think someone may really enjoy, like a nice sweater or homemade scarf, a nice home decor item to make their space cozier. We would like to make this donation drive inclusive financially, so (we) encourage people to make homemade cards that we can include with gifts,” Winsor says.
Currently, she adds, they’re looking for local shops and media sponsors to help them spread the word and give them a place to park around the holidays to collect the items.
“This will hopefully improve local shops’ business, as we hope that people going into the stores may buy some extra gift items as a donation,” she says.
“There are a few other things in the mix as well, but our goal right now is to complete the bus so other programs can take place.”
Learn more about Old School Intergenerational Projects here.