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Two Cultures and One Language: Respect


Grandpa Harvey seemed to surprise even himself, stepping lively to the strains of the Mexican hat dance. Other feet tapped on wheelchair footrests as Elvis imitator Jesus, 6, belted out "Hound Dog."

For a few enchanted hours, the generation gap was being narrowed, if not closed, the barriers of language and color broken down. Latino children from East L.A. had come out to play with elderly residents of the Hollenbeck Home.

It was a picnic with a purpose. Hollenbeck Home is in East L.A., but not of it. The home dates from the 1890s, when neighborhood kids were William and Mildred, not Manuel and Maria.

Hollenbeck's residents--most of them white and reasonably well-off--live in a green 10-acre oasis a world apart from the raw urban poverty around them.

Smiling approvingly at the goings-on, 99-year-old resident Mildred Hutchinson said: "It's good for them to know what this community is like. The people who live here never knew this part of the city."

The picnic was a first for Hands Across the Generations, a project of the nonprofit National Family Center, which seeks to strengthen family life.

That's a flowery way of saying that young and old came together to eat hot dogs and watermelon, laugh and dance and play games.

Sure, some of the 18 residents who ventured out preferred to watch, but others plunged right in. Helen Elbert, 88, was playing a flash-card game with Daniel Romero, 3, relishing her role of surrogate grandmother for a day. (Later, she'd be spotted pushing a chair in the wheelchair parade.)

Elbert has no grandchildren of her own: "My children all died shortly after they were born."

At a long table, seniors and youngsters worked side by side, making works of art from a sticky flour-and-water mixture.

Jefery Lopez, 9, had Grandma Lila Hinman, 73, in tow. They'd made a love connection at a planning session at Hollenbeck a month before. "I don't know how long I'll be able to hold up as grandma," said Hinman, laughing. "It's a little bit more than I bargained for."

Jefery's family has taken her to its heart, to the movies and to the Sizzler. There's mother Natividad, 39, five children, seven grandchildren. Said Hinman, who never had children: "I didn't plan on being a great-grandmother, too. I didn't know she had those!"

"She feels bad because she doesn't have money to give us presents," Jefery said, "but I don't want presents. I want her to be my grandma," a stand-in for his real grandmother, who's in El Salvador. "I can only visit her every year. I can visit Grandma Lila every Saturday."

As the temperature soared, the picnic was moved into a rec room, where the sounds of children at play bounced off the walls. The very thought of all that noise had scared some seniors away, observed Dennis Hiebert, Hollenbeck activities director.

The 30 kids were from Plaza Community Center, where low-income working Latino families, many headed by single mothers, get free or sliding-scale day care, as well as programs in prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect.

The parents jumped at the idea of the picnic, said Manuel Garcia, center program director. Many are immigrants and "they've left their families behind."

Garcia was directing everyone to form a circle of chairs. "Como se llamas tu?" he asked, moving around the circle. They answered: Harold. Hazel. Gabriel. Diego. Name tags identified residents--even those who are not real-life grandparents--as "grandma" and "grandpa."

Out came the maracas, which speak a universal language. Shaking his maraca, Grandpa Harvey Hallum, 71, reckoned that this was nice, but he doesn't see himself taking on grandchildren: "I wouldn't know what to do with them."

Waltz time. To the strains of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," Hiebert pushed and twirled Grandma Beverly Clines, 87, around the floor in her wheelchair, executing deep dips. The seniors sang along; the children watched, wide-eyed.

"A lot of connections were made here," Garcia said at day's end.

"Very nice children . . . so well-mannered . . . so affectionate," Grandma Beverly said.

Grandma Mildred was thrilled to see so much life at Hollenbeck: "It's such a quiet, sedate place."

As a rule, Hiebert limits activities to an hour. The picnic lasted three--and no one left early. "These people had fun," he said.

Vivian Feintech, National Family Center president, was already making plans to keep the connection going.

Whatever, Hiebert said, "It'll be the buzz of the place for a while."

Shark in Gown

Don't let the black evening gown fool you: The lady is a pool shark.

We're at Gotham Hall in Santa Monica, where two top women pros are cue to cue in a nine-ball championship match. The winner will take home $20,000, thanks to Gordon's (the gin and vodka people).

History is being made: This is the biggest single payday ever on the women's circuit, the kind of money the men make.

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