The smiles were contagious as a guitarist strolled through the audience and people sang along to “La Bamba.” Nearby, others played games, while still another group chatted happily and collaborated on making jewelry.
“This is the first time we’ve done this,” said Lori Dmytrow, transition coordinator/teacher at North Bergen High School. “It’s a pilot. We went to the Harborage nursing home about a month ago and it worked really nicely. So I asked if we could expand it and have kids go to different senior buildings every week.”
On Friday, Jan. 29, five students from the Pathways program at North Bergen High School visited the Lawler senior building to spend time with the residents, playing memory games, threading bracelets, and generally having fun.
Pathways is a program for learning-disabled kids ages 15 to 21, with the goal of helping them integrate into the community.
“Anything that the seniors can give to our students is great. Anything that we can give to the seniors, it’s a win-win.” –Lori Dmytrow
Ginard, 92, immigrated from Cuba in 1961 and worked until she was 80. She attends every senior activity she can, and happily joined the group making bracelets, with assistance from her visitors.
“They approached me from the high school and I loved the idea,” said Housing Authority Executive Director Gerald Sanzari about the Pathways project. “Part of their mission is to give the kids real life experiences where they can interact. Our mission is to try to keep our seniors active and engaged because they get lonely. So it was a win-win. Everybody looks so happy.”
Learning life skills
The Pathways program was initiated about six years ago in North Bergen. Currently there are 22 kids in the program. “Pathways class is for those with significant learning disabilities or autistic kids who would have a hard time in the regular school classes,” said Dominick Della Fave, who has been a special education teacher for 19 years, the last four in North Bergen. He is one of two Pathways teachers, along with Mariama Mansaray.
The classroom in the high school is equipped with a kitchen with refrigerator, stove, oven, and dishwasher, along with a clothes washer and dryer. “The kids come in and have breakfast and we really focus on life skills,” said Della Fave. “We teach academics and things like money or measurement or time, trying to develop skills that will transfer into life after school.”
Then there’s the CBI, or community based instruction. “We try to place kids with local businesses and take them there once or twice a week to do some work and get some of those skills,” he said. Businesses that support the program include Walgreen’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Perfect Pizza.
As transition coordinator, Dmytrow works exclusively with the special education population. Teaching for 25 years in the district, she works not only with CBI but with transitions like preschool to kindergarten and eighth grade to high school.
“We’re figuring this would be a great mesh, knowing that the seniors need help and assistance, and these kids need help as well,” she said.
Music, the universal language
The event got off to a slow start, with seniors drifting in gradually and everyone tentatively getting to know one another. But soon the groups were interacting breezily and moving between tables, trying different things.
Theresa Whitford, 78, has lived in the Lawler for 15 years. “My fiancé used to live next door,” she said, proudly showing off her engagement ring. “He’s in the Harborage now. I used to visit him but I can’t anymore because I have arthritis and I had a hip replacement, and I still ache.”
Asked when she planned to get married, she said, “Never. His daughter won’t let him,” as she carefully strung beads on a bracelet.
Nearby, Della Fave strolled through the crowd with his acoustic guitar, taking requests and leading singalongs. “You want me to sing in Italian?” asked Isabella Cortese, who used to work with physically disabled kids at Kennedy and Lincoln Schools in the early 1990s.
“I love the music,” said Adelfa Delapena, a Lawler resident for 24 years. “I’m so happy here because I never had a problem in this building,” she added as she worked on a bracelet for her great-granddaughter.
“This has turned out even better than we thought,” said Kathy Paletta, director of social services for North Bergen. “The seniors are so engaged. Next time they come I have some musical instruments we can bring. We can do a band!”
Making people happy
Kayla, 15, was the most engaged of the kids, happily joining a card game or helping make jewelry. “Kayla would have a ball anywhere,” said Della Fave. “Sometimes we’ll do karaoke and she goes up and just kills it.”
Braulio was a little more shy, assisting with set-up and helping where needed. Xavier proudly told everyone about his plans to open a free circus when he got older. This is his first year in Pathways and he knew exactly what they were doing at Lawler.
“We’re making people happy,” he said.
And so they were. Going forward, a rotating group of kids from the Pathways class will visit a different senior building in North Bergen every Friday through June. Over time, the goal is for the seniors to provide some input on life skills to the kids. “If they want to bring a basket of laundry down they can teach the kids how to fold laundry,” said Dmytrow. “One woman wants to show them how to crochet.”
“Anything that the seniors can give to our students is great,” she added. “Anything that we can give to the seniors, it’s a win-win.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.