Cover Story

Old but not isolated

"Old but not isolated" Continued...

Issue: "Endings & beginnings," Jan. 13, 2007

Ernestine Howard has found an opportunity to serve twice a month in Mary Weaver's kindergarten class at Westminster's Christian school. "The kids are so refreshing," says Howard, 77, on her way to class on a crisp morning.

Inside Weaver's busy classroom, some 20 kindergartners sit around short tables listening to their teacher's instructions. Paper plates decorated with owl faces and brown paint hang from the ceiling, and a sign with bright blue letters in the front of the class reads: "This is the day that the Lord has made." On this day, Weaver explains each activity the children will complete at different stations around the room. While Howard and two other volunteers help students stay focused, Weaver spends individual reading time with each child in a connecting room.

Howard scoots up to one of the small tables in a tiny yellow chair to help a group of children arrange words on slips of paper into a sentence. The children paste the words onto manila strips of construction paper with purple glue and look to Howard for approval. One boy tells Howard his grandmother is coming to visit. Another tells her if you flip the word "dog," it spells "God." Others ask for help figuring out how to put the sentence together. Howard praises each child as he reads the finished product.

"You can just see the wheels turning," she says with a smile. Howard also volunteers at a local public elementary school as a mentor to children who need extra attention: "I like the one-on-one time with them. And I think they like it too."

Amy Laughlin, director of campus activities at the Towers, volunteers with Howard in Weaver's class and says getting seniors and children together is "a great intergenerational thing." Small children from the church school come to the Towers to sing and read with residents. When the older students study World War II, Towers military veterans put on their bomber jackets and go to class to share firsthand stories of the battles in textbooks.

Laughlin, 27, is a church member who started out as a volunteer at the Towers. Three years later she joined the staff full-time. "I love them all so much," Laughlin says of the residents. "It's like they're all my grandparents."

WPC senior pastor Shelton Sanford has led a Bible study for residents on most Thursday mornings since the Towers opened 17 years ago: "One of the most fun things I get to do all week is come over and see my students at the Towers." The pastor currently leads an in-depth study of Genesis and doesn't shy away from the tough theological stuff: "They hang in there. It's such a blessing to see these godly saints who still want to learn and grow."

Sanford, 57, has found a deeper kinship with the residents recently. The pastor lost his wife of 36 years to leukemia last March. The widower says that the "greatest loss of my life" has given him "a much deeper sympathy" for residents at the Towers who have lost a spouse: "There's a lot of loss over there."

Helping residents deal with loss and pain is a regular part of the work at the Towers, especially in the assisted living and nursing home wings. Fountain says hiring good staff members who bond with residents is key. One staffer recently held her wedding in the tiny chapel in the assisted living wing so that disabled residents could share in her wedding day. Another staffer held an extra wedding reception in the Towers' dining room so residents could join the celebration.

Residents support each other as well, and Richard Tevebaugh has turned that into a regular job as the Towers' volunteer pastor-at-large. Tevebaugh and his wife moved into the Towers five years ago after his long career as a Presbyterian minister. "When I was 75 or 76 I decided it was time to hang it up and retire," he says. But Tevebaugh, 81, doesn't seem very retired: He teaches a Wednesday night men's Bible study, leads a widows support group, visits and prays with sick residents, and welcomes each new resident at the Towers: "I'm here for anyone who needs me."

On Sunday afternoons Tevebaugh leads a vespers service in the community room. Typically a row of sharply dressed ladies sits behind walkers on comfortable couches as the service begins. On one Sunday others sat on folding chairs, holding large-print songbooks, singing "Blessed Assurance" with gusto, and listening to a short Bible lesson. Tevebaugh also visits inmates at a local prison once a week and accepts invitations to preach at area churches.

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