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Economy | Education

Connecting Oregon's Seniors And Youngsters Benefits Both

As school lets out this summer, many kids will flock to the movie theaters for a dose of fantasy. Some may imagine themselves as the little boy in the movie “Up,” who connects with his aging neighbor.

Mr. Frederickson: “Dahhh…”
Boy: “What’s wrong Mr. Frederickson?”
Mr. Frederickson: “Oh, nothing, I scraped my knuckle.”
Boy: “Uh oh, that looks like a snake bite!”
Mr. Frederickson: “It’s tiny, only needs a small bandage.
Boy: “I have those!”

The connections between youngsters and adults in Oregon aren’t pure fantasy. Schools and non-profits are making those connections to help youngsters stay on track, and to keep older adults engaged.

Rob Manning looks at two efforts that put kids and seniors together.

Paul Knauls: “Testing, testing, 1-2-3.”

A small table and a couple of microphones separate 78-year-old Paul Knauls from 16-year-old Kyla Burch. She’s a little nervous, and sticks to the questions on a sheet of paper as she starts her interview.

Her Q & A will be part of a project called “Boise Voices” that captures the stories of older folks who watched the North Portland Boise Elliott neighborhood change.

Kyla Burch: “What were some of your goals and ambitions when you were young, and have you fulfilled any of them?”

Paul Knauls: “Actually I have. I used to work at a country club, it was a lot of rich people who came there, because you had to be rich to be in there. I finally asked one gentleman, one day, said ‘Mr. Jones, you have a lot of money –‘ I was about ten years old at the time, and I asked him, ‘how do you get to have a lot of money?’ He said ‘Paul, I have some money.’ And I was a busboy. 'You have to have discipline, if you own a business, you’ve got to be there, and what you have to do, Paul, is you have to have people working for you, and they make money for you, and you’re just supervising’.”

Knauls, as it happens, did go on to own a number of businesses, including a barbershop he runs today. But as Burch’s interview revealed, Knauls had his share of difficulties, chief among them, the riches-to-rags story of his North Portland music venue, the Cotton Club.

Kyla Burch: “Why did the Cotton Club close its doors?”

Paul Knauls: “Oh, that’s a real tragic story. In 1968, see, I had a crowd – the white people came Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday; and on weekends, the African American folks came, they didn't come out every night. So I had the best of both worlds. But then, when Dr. King got killed, that started to separate the races, so the whites stopped coming because the blacks were there, and the blacks stopped coming because the whites were there. And so I’m sitting there with this business, and I had no business.”

History lessons are part of the back-and-forth between the teenagers and the seniors who take part in the Boise Voices’ project.

Another initiative that brings generations together is Experience Corps,  run in Portland by Metropolitan Family Services at grade schools like Woodlawn Elementary.

It places retired men and women into classrooms as tutors to help young kids learn to read.

Woodlawn’s reigning matriarch is 94-year-old Cherry Hendrix, or Grandma Cherry. She credits the program’s emphasis on solid training and relationships for significant reading gains in recent studies.

Hendrix recalls the patience it took to teach a girl who was illiterate in 8th grade.

Cherry Hendrix: “The first thing that she would say to me is ‘I am dumb’. I said ‘who told you you were dumb?’ and she said ‘that’s what they say, I am dumb.’ And she cried every day, every day. Now, there might have been something really wrong with her, but she did learn to read – she did learn to read.”

Grandma Cherry Hendrix makes a point of connecting with kids outside  class, too. She takes kids bowling. That helped one troubled child, in particular.

Cherry Hendrix: “I told her, I said ‘I want to take you bowling, but your teacher says you won’t do right, and I know you will.’ I just talked to her: ‘your mother loves you – and why am I here? Because I love you. These are the things I’d like you to do, these are the things I’d like you not to do.’ And she was the best of the group.”

Hendrix says she often sees older kids she mentored through Experience Corps, though at 94, she says she has trouble remembering who they are. 

The focus of Experience Corps is to get kids to read. The point of the Boise Voices project is to document a neighborhood’s history. But both efforts are forging relationships between young and old.

Even the short time that 16-year-old Kyla Burch spent with Paul Knauls made an impression.

Kyla Burch: “It was, it was nice, and I really enjoyed talking to him. I might even visit his barbershop, just to talk to him.”

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