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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Connecting generations: Pilot project Writing Across Generations links teens, senior adults starting April 12

 (Molly Quinn)

A Spokane pilot project has an intergenerational vision: It will match teens with senior adults virtually this spring so they can collaborate on creative storytelling.

The virtual meetings between teams of youth and older residents is planned to launch April 12 for eight weeks of sessions designed to inspire journaling or similar writing projects grown out of conversations, writing prompts and personal stories.

Called Writing Across Generations, it’s being led by the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, of Spokane County. Justin Eisenstadt, its director, said as many as 60 students are expected to join in the forum from the Community School, a Spokane Public Schools project-based learning site.

“This is an opportunity to do something really substantial, where senior volunteers are doing more of a mentorship or creating these intergenerational connections,” said Eisenstadt, who has a creative writing background, including a period as an Eastern Washington University graduate student.

“It is something we are creating from scratch,” he said. Once completed, “Our goal is to share these projects with the broader Spokane community.”

Writing Across Generations has enough students enrolled in the program, he said, but the project is still recruiting more senior volunteers ages 55 and older. The seniors need to enroll via RSVP’s website and register with YMCA of the Inland Northwest, which sponsors RSVP. YMCA’s registration process requires a background check.

More enrollee information is on the website, or people can call RSVP if they have questions at (509) 344-7787.

The teams likely will include two students paired with one AmeriCorps senior for one or two sessions a week using Microsoft Teams breakout rooms. Eisenstadt said he has a limited number of webcams to loan if a senior needs one, but most laptops or tablets have cameras. He and staff also plan to offer computer training.

Eisenstadt was first inspired toward this project near the end of 2020. During the pandemic, he said RSVP has had to pull back from its traditional roles because seniors are in a higher-risk category if they contract the coronavirus.

Many RSVP volunteers are staying home, he said. Typically, more than 200 are signed up, and many go to nonprofits to volunteer at sites, or others help RSVP’s Project Warmup, for which seniors make blankets, hats and mittens for low-income and homeless populations.

Inspiration for Writing Across Generations grew out of Eisenstadt connecting with researchers at the Ontario-based McMaster University, where a team is studying creative and supportive ways to improve the cognitive and social well-being of older adults.

Eisenstadt said the McMaster researchers developed an online platform called WritLarge for older adults to share personal life stories anonymously and to be used as inspiration.

However, he said the Spokane project has its own tailored platform developed on the basis of WritLarge, and the local one is inspired in part by the national project StoryCorps.

Although Writing Across Generations will have its own platform, the local teams will be able to read stories on WritLarge. Early on, Spokane members will be encouraged to get to know each other through discussions as well as to generate things to write about.

“My hope is they’ll share personal stories and create connections,” Eisenstadt said. “We will provide some prompts or lists of questions they can use for jumping-off points to generate discussions.

“This is where the partnership with McMaster University and this WritLarge platform comes in. The idea is to encourage the participants to go onto this platform and just explore and find stories that really excite them, that they want to talk about or will inspire them to write their own journal entries.”

“Ideally, it will be in response either to conversations they had during their actual group sessions or responses to things they read at WritLarge or just whatever else is going on in their lives or current events.”

The students will be asked to do at least one writing entry every week. Senior volunteers will be encouraged to write, as well, but it’s not required. Teams will be able to see students’ writing entries and discuss them during sessions to prompt more discussions. All of the writing work will go into the Writing Across Generations’ platform.

Eisenstadt said the opportunity to host these meetings between teens and seniors has benefits beyond writing.

“Intergenerational connections are really powerful, especially in terms of helping older adults feel more connected particularly at a time like right now when they’re socially isolated more than they’ve ever been,” Eisenstadt said.

“Students gain the benefit of connecting with older adults, especially in this case older adults outside their own family who will have completely different life experiences.”

Plus, it’s a concrete way to see the impact of senior volunteers’ mentorships.

“The idea is that it will get the students more interested or excited about school and academics in general, but more specifically about writing, storytelling, sharing personal experiences and creative expression.”