Retired teacher and Qi Gong instructor Margaret Wallace leads students through some exercises during a regular Tuesday session at R.J. Scott School in Edmonton. The Qi Gong program is one of several ways that local seniors are helping the school provide its students with positive interactions and role modelling. (Photos: Yuet Chan)
A strong connection with local seniors is helping an Edmonton school provide greater stability, calmness and positive role modelling to its population of students who face significant challenges in their lives.
Through a program that began last year, R.J. Scott Elementary School regularly hosts groups of seniors who help out with a variety of activities.
“Originally it was just, ‘Let’s help out with some knitting and some gardening’ and now it’s grown into a lot more,” said principal Beverly Oldford. “[Seniors] feel part of the R.J. Scott family and they look for ways to support us now.”
Because the school didn’t have a librarian, a pair of seniors with library backgrounds spearheaded the proper sorting and cataloguing of books last year. They continue to volunteer in the library every week while other seniors continue to offer sessions in knitting, gardening, reading and Qi Gong, an ancient Chinese health practice.
“We have specific targeted areas now and it’s a growing team. They’re kind of part of our outreach program,” Oldford said.
She said this ongoing contact has developed into a valuable partnership for the school, with students benefiting from seniors’ knowledge and the positive relationships that have naturally formed. Many of the school’s students are lacking strong supports away from school. Many have lived in refugee camps in other countries and have experienced poverty and mental health issues.
How it started
A report produced in June 2015, after the program had completed its first year, explains that the initiative was conceived as a community development project and began when the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton (SAGE) secured a $25,000 federal grant under the New Horizons for Seniors Program. Dubbed From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” the project aimed to encourage seniors to apply their gifts and knowledge toward improving their neighbourhoods, the underlying assumptions being that seniors have a lot to contribute and that being of service is good for their health.
“Many stated that they didn’t want to play cards or bingo, but wanted to be of service in a meaningful way,” the report states.
Organizers put a lot of thought into the selection of a geographical area for the project, settling on Beverly in northeast Edmonton because it’s an area with relatively low income, higher than average unemployment, a higher percentage of seniors, higher levels of migration in and out and a culturally diverse population.
The geographical focus naturally led seniors to approach the school, located in the heart of Beverly. With the grant period now passed, Oldford is continuing to maintain relationships with seniors and keep the various projects going.
Retired nurse Noma Morrissey began volunteering at the school last year. Although she lives only four blocks away, she had no idea what conditions were like at the school.
“My first visit to R.J. Scott, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe how many kids were there without shoes ... and how many kids were coming apparently without food,” she said. “We tried to do anything we could do.”
Although the school regularly ranks near the bottom of provincial rankings for academic success, its students have a right to feel welcome and to learn, she said.
“My objective would be to let the kids in the school believe they have a community and believe the community cares,” Morrissey said.
A popular feature of the school’s senior programming is weekly sessions of Qi Gong (pronounced “chee gong”), an ancient Chinese breathing practice aimed at helping the children calm themselves and stay focused on their school work. In order to be appropriate for a public school setting, the sessions have been modified to eliminate the usual spiritual element, said Margaret Wallace, a retired teacher who practises the ancient ritual.
“It’s quite inspiring. I just love doing it,” she said of volunteering at the school. “I love the response that I get from the little ones.”
Oldford said the sessions are particularly helpful given her students’ backgrounds.
“Ninety per cent of the kids at R.J. Scott have experienced trauma of some sort, so we really practise mindfulness and self-regulation,” she said.
Teacher Shannon Galloway said she uses Qi Gong techniques regularly in her class. While these techniques are helpful to students, they really look forward to interacting with the seniors.
“It’s not about the Qi Gong, it’s about the relationships that they’re building,” Galloway said. “They don’t have a lot of positive role models in the adult world, and they don’t have great connections with their own grandparents, so this provides them with a positive role model, someone who shows that they’re caring, someone who they feel safe with.”
Reading has been part of the program since its inception but became more formalized this year with the creation of Wee Read, an eight-week program that pairs seniors with students in kindergarten or Grade 1. For 30 minutes each week, the volunteers read a story to their groups, talk about the book and play games that support literacy skills. All the participating seniors received training last fall from a representative from Edmonton Public Schools.
Oldford said the reading program is one of the most successful of the senior partnerships.
“The kids look forward to their mentors. Even the grandmas in Wee Read, they look forward to it. I think it’s a mutual relationship because they get really attached to the kids,” Oldford said.
Feedback gathered last year about seniors reading to students included this comment from a girl in a Grade 5/6 class.
“I think it’s good to meet them because you should get to know them so they don’t feel alone and stuff.”
Darlene Schlodder, a retired nurse who volunteers for Wee Read, said seeing the children come out of their shells is very satisfying.
“I feel like I’ve done something — like I really have accomplished something — and I really see the growth of the children ... which makes me feel good.” ❚