Jenda Nye, public information specialist, Cache County School District
A few days before Halloween, residents of Sunrise Park Assisted Living Community in Lewiston gathered in the commons area. Excitement was in the air as they anticipated the arrival of a group of Lewiston Elementary students.
“The fun and the color and the noise . . . their excitement, their electricity,” said Ramona, a Sunrise Park resident, as she helped a few of her elderly friends fasten on their witch hats.
Moments later, a large group of elementary students arrived, decked out in bright costumes and ready to entertain. They performed for nearly half an hour, singing Halloween favorites and charming the residents with their smiles and enthusiasm. Their efforts were met with a hearty round of applause, followed by stickers, treats and hugs from the audience. As the students trickled out the door, it was clear that both they and the residents were uplifted.
Thanks to the local organization YOUth Connect, interactions such as this occur regularly across Cache Valley. YOUth Connect’s mission is to provide a bridge between the elderly and younger generations by facilitating school visits to nursing homes and assisted living communities. YOUth Connect was founded in 2011 by Mountain Crest High School alumna, Emilee Hamilton.
At the time of the program’s conception, Emilee was a shy teenager who discovered joy in visiting and serving the elderly. She saw the need for youth, as well as seniors, to feel loved and needed.
“Six years ago,” superintendent Dr. Steve Norton recalls, “Emilee approached the school district in a principal’s meeting with the idea of having students be involved in the lives of the elderly people living in our Valley.
The program took off quickly, and Dr. Norton was impressed with the profound impact he saw, not only on the elderly residents that YOUth Connect served, but also on the students who participated.
“We watched kids who had never had an opportunity to do so before give service to the elderly in our community,” Dr. Norton said. “They blossomed and grew with this experience. We want all of our students to have these types of opportunities.”
Participation in YOUth Connect varies depending on grade level. Students in grades K-6 travel on field trips to local assisted living centers and nursing homes. Although holiday visits are common, YOUth Connect invites schools to schedule their visits across the school year. Students sing, do crafts, play games and draw pictures with residents. Bus travel to the centers is funded through the Cache Education Foundation.
At the high school level, visits are arranged through each school’s Key Club, whose purpose is to encourage leadership through serving others. District Key Clubs coordinate with YOUth Connect, as well as volunteer mentors from Utah State University, to host weekly events at local assisted living centers and nursing homes.
On the same day as Lewiston Elementary’s visit, across the Valley in Logan, another group of Cache County School District students gathered at Sunshine Terrace. High school students dropped in to play games with the elderly residents.
“It’s a lot of fun getting to know people and being a bright spot in their day,” said Marie, a student from Green Canyon High School, as she dealt out a hand of Uno. Her elderly companion smiled in agreement.
For more information on how you or your student can get involved with YOUth Connect, please visit utahyouthconnect.org.