LA MESA — It was raining, and Ruth Leiderman's class of gifted third- through sixth-graders was looking eagerly out the wet window panes of Northmont Elementary School's Room 18. Meanwhile, a griddle was heating, waiting to cook potato latkes, and one wall was covered with a colorful, cut-paper design of a menorah and the message "Happy Chanukah, Adopted Grandparents."
Soon a van and a station wagon pulled up, and the children streamed through the door to help 12 elderly residents of San Diego Hebrew Home make their way slowly into the waiting warmth.
This adopt-a-grandparent program began two years ago when Leiderman, then Ruth Gottfeld, began teaching the gifted class (one of several in the school system where students can be in the same classroom for four years). Gary Leiderman, assistant administrator of the home, suggested that her class might like to visit with residents. Soon, with the help of Alice Avigal, activities coordinator of the home, the program was under way. And it has worked out very well, said Ruth Leiderman--for everyone. Now all 24 children in her class have an adopted grandparent at the home whom they see once a month--and the Leidermans have been married since last month.
The length of time students spend in her class works to the advantage of a program like this, said Leiderman, 34. "It works out well for the students and for the elders because there is time to develop a real relationship. That is what is really unique about this adopt-a-grandparent program."
The youngsters go to the home once a month to spend time with their special friends, and each time they take a gift they've made in class--a card, or perhaps a May Day basket, a mobile or a paper weight with a photo inside. And the senior citizens reciprocate with cards or small tokens of appreciation.
The children and residents often work on arts and crafts together, or do exercises led by the activities coordinator, like the one called Parachute (sitting in a circle holding a real parachute, and billowing it up and down for muscle coordination), or a dance exercise. But mostly, they just talk, the way all friends do.
According to staffer Denice Levinson, "The elders look forward to the children's visits, and have a countdown . . . 'Five days to go until the kids come, four days . . .' "
"Since there is only one Jewish child in the class, the elders are exposed to children who aren't Jewish, and this is good for them," Avigal said. "It is more than an intergenerational experience, it is also interculture. The children in turn learn about the Jewish traditions--and also what it's like to have a Jewish grandmother! They are always buying candy for the children."
The recent classroom visit was eagerly anticipated--it's the one day in the year that the senior citizens visit the school.
Julia Pochter, 94, came in first, on the arm of Carrie Ross, 10. She smiled widely as she said proudly, "This is my granddaughter, Carrie." Carrie held the woman's cane and helped her sit down. Then Carrie handed her a small tissue-wrapped gift. She carefully peeled back the wraping to reveal a clay dreidel, a toy used traditionally at Hanukkah.
"Oh, I'll give it some day to my sister and her children and her children's children, and it'll be passed on. I love children. I couldn't have any," said Pochter. Then she pulled a photo from her purse and handed it to Carrie. It was of the two of them, taken at their last get-together.
Soon, the ambulatory residents of the home (average age is 90, Levinson said) sat in the room at small tables with their adopted grandchildren and the other students whose grandparents were not able to make the trek.
The festivities began with a short explanation of the meaning of the lighting of each candle on the menorah during the eight days of Hanukkah.
"Today is the fourth day; the candle today is for mercy," said Avigal.
Karen Harness, who will soon replace Avigal as the home's activities coordinator, played traditional music on her guitar, accompanying the singing. Then, along with the eating of the latkes, cookies and punch, the talking began.
How They Felt
Lenna Saperstein, 86, and Michael Shultz, 11, reminisced about their first meeting. "I was shy," said Michael.
"Yes," said Saperstein. Her delicate gold earring gently moved as she talked. "He wrote notes to me at first. He said I was the nicest lady he ever met. He is so sincere and polite. I wouldn't disappoint him for the world."
Saperstein came here from New York two years ago and has no family in San Diego. "The affection you would give to your own, you can give to these children," she said. "It's true devotion. And people full of love, like Michael, come from homes of harmony."