Mixing generations adds new dimensions to child care

After emma Boyer retired from her job of 32 years and the last of her four children left home, she realized that she wasn't ready to give up either occupation entirely.

So when she learned that the Intergenerational Child Care Center in Santa Cruz was looking for senior citizens to work parttime, it seemed to be the opportunity she needed. Nearly four years later she is still reading stories, supervising games, and sharing experiences with a lively group of small children who are quite glad Mrs. Boyer didn't move to Sun City.

"I get more than I give," she says as she sets down a box of project materials she has brought in for the youngsters to use. "My grandchildren are all back East, and I don't get to see them very much. But these children show so much love that I'm enjoying a lot of what I'd otherwise miss."

But which generation at the Intergenerational Child Care Center benefits the most is open to debate. The center serves 33 children aged 2 1/2 to 6; their low-income parents, most of whom are singly mothers; and a network of older people who are able both to supplement their incomes and add a new dimension to their lives.

"It's not unusual now for a person to have 25 years of retired life -- nearly as long as the period of being an active worker," says director Sallie Johnson, herself in the midst of a busy career that has included being with the center since it started 4 1/2 years ago. "We need more options for them to earn more money and to contribute in many valuable ways."

Currently the center employs five senior citizens as teaching aides, who work five 4-hour shifts a week. About 30 others are employed as "suba," filling in according to their own and the center's needs. Most apply first at the Elvirita Lewis Foundation, a local organization created to find jobs for older people and to genrate community programs such as this one.

The center, aside from its dual purpose of aiding low-income parents and senior citizens, was also created with the idea of mingling generations that often have little or no contact with each other.

"Our families have scattered to such an extent that it's rare for a grandparent to be in the child's home or even close by," Ms. Johnson says. "As a result, many kids have a shallow understanding of our culture. Older people bring a wealth of experiences and can teach them that there's more to our society than shopping malls."

She believes that the older aides are able to win the respect of the children in a way that younger volunteers often cannot. "The kids are calmer and more orderly because of the presence of older people," she says. "While 18-year-old volunteers tend to play with them actively, the elders leave the kids' activities to the kids.What they get is child care that allows them to be independent and yet gives them all the love they want."

Scattered throughout the low wooden building are lots of large, overstuffed chairs, just right for aides to sit with a child or two on their laps. Both aides and children eat together at long tables, where a family atmosphere is conducive to teaching table manners and considerate behavior.

The cost to parents, based on a sliding scale according to income, is minimal. "What we do is provide child care for those who otherwise couldn't afford it and would very likely have to go on welfare," says Ms. Johnson.

Because most of the parents are mothers raising a child alone, she is especially delighted when older men sign on as aides. "The men work out extremely well, and provide a much-needed masculine presence to many of the kids ," she says. "But they're very hard to get, because men of that generation are not accustomed to caring for children. Once we get them in the door and they see that it's not changing diapers, they really enjoy it."

Because the center truly is "intergenerational," volunteers also include children in the upper elementary school grades and teen-agers from high school job programs. Other volunteers have come from Community Options, a program that allows offenders to work in lieu of a jail sentence or fine. "One woman who came here in that way worked out so well that she now has a CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] job with us," Ms. Johnson says. "In addition to being an invaluable assistant, she's learning parenting skills for her small son."

Although the Elvirita Lewis Foundation provided the starting costs, salaries for the center staff are paid by the California Office of Education. All of the senior citizen volunteers are paid at least minimum wage, no matter how irregularly they work. The center's building is provided rent-free by the local school district.

"No matter how low our budget gets -- and it's quite low -- we pay salaries to the people who work here," says Ms. Johnson. "Fortunately, we've found that kids don't need a lot of fancy equipment and toys to be creative and have a good time."

Some of the toys and equipment that the center does have been purchased from local senior craftspeople. The tiny patchwork quilts used for naptime were made by members of the Senior Crafts Co-op and Retired Senior Volunteer Program, as were the children's easels and giant wooden blocks.

The success of the Santa Cruz center has recently prompted the opening of another of its type -- the Leo Ryan Intergenrational Child Care Center in South San Francisco. Although it now accomodates over 30 children, that wasn't always the case.

"It was very exciting going through the process again," says Ms. Johnson, who helped the Ryan center get started. "On the first day there were many volunteers, but only two or three children showed up. It was quite dear to see all these older volunteers clustered around them, showering all that love and attention on such a tiny group."

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