SEVERAL times each week, 13 inner-city teen-agers become the arms and legs of 36 retirees who are unable to lift bags of groceries or walk to the pharmacy. In return, the financially needy youth earn at least the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour.
Many of the teen-agers and their homebound clients say these meetings give them something more than a job and services, something that they badly need - recognition and friendship.
``Teen-agers and older people are taken for granted, and easily stereotyped,'' says Diane Vargas, a 16-year-old sophomore at the Brooklyn College Academy.
``But teens need love and affection, guidance and help, and elderly look for that, too.''
Diane and 12 co-workers are members of Project Touch, a three-year-old program based in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn that charts a common ground between disparate age groups. Junior and senior high school students visit several elderly people every week, where for two hours they run errands, deliver messages, or chat in front of a television.
Each Thursday afternoon Maria Rodriguez, 18, a three-year veteran of Project Touch, takes a subway from the predominantly working-class Sunset Park section of Brooklyn to the elegant brownstones and tree-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights. She meets with Ruth Leavitt, who is bound to a wheelchair.
The cultural distance between the two can be measured by Ms. Leavitt's shopping list.
``I buy things for her that I've never seen before,'' says Maria, ``like matzos and gefilte fish.''
Despite their differences, Maria calls Leavitt and her three other clients the ``family'' she never had. Her father left home when she was 6, and she often fought with her mother and three brothers. She moved in with distant cousins when she was 16.
``We talk a lot, but [my clients] never tell me what to do,'' Maria says. ``They understand me, which was a surprise. I know I can count on them.''
Though she struggled to stay in school and left Project Touch for a short time to work at a grocery store, Maria graduated from high school last February. This summer, she'll enter the nursing program at New York Technical College.
Maria credits her elderly friends for encouraging her to work harder in school. ``When I graduated, the ones who cared were my clients,'' she says.
While there are no hard data on the precise number of intergenerational service programs nationwide, Youth Service America, a national youth service advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., reports that 49 states, cities, and counties are funding active youth service programs.
Dozens of these programs provide care and companionship for the aged. For example:
In Los Angeles, Youth Community Service helps students from 22 high schools establish links with the elderly.
Summer projects for the Youth Volunteer Corps of Greater Kansas City, part of the volunteer center of the local United Way, help winterize the homes of elderly inner-city residents.
A program called Magic Me brings middle-school children throughout Baltimore into nursing homes where they collaborate with elderly residents to write poetry and perform plays.
Cutbacks in federal funding could have set youth and elderly advocacy groups against each other, according to James Dumpson, a senior consultant to the New York Community Trust, which funds six intergenerational service programs. Instead, declining resources forced creative solutions aimed at bringing the two groups together.
``What began as something that was potentially divisive has instead become a gift for the young and elderly,'' says Dr. Dumpson.
Sponsored by Project Reach Youth, a nonprofit private youth agency, Project Touch strives to instill a sense of discipline and responsibility. It also provides a crucial first job to unemployed teen-agers who benefit from the experience with the elderly, according to the agency's executive director, Janet Kelly.
Most of the Project Touch workers are blacks or Hispanic. About half are from single-parent families, and one-quarter live on some form of public assistance. They have to complete a two-week training course before aiding clients, who often live alone with a range of disabilities.
Instead of compensating workers with academic credit or college scholarships, Project Touch and at least five other New York programs differ from many intergenerational service groups by paying an hourly wage. The teen-agers say that they weren't drawn to the program out of altruism for the elderly, but because they needed the money.
Yet the students agree that their relationship with their clients, whom they often liken to grandparents, is the most important aspect of their work.
``You've got to treat the elderly as individuals,'' says Project Touch worker Jessica York, 18. ``You can't take them for granted.''
``I've got one client who's sassy, one who's a fighter,'' adds Louise Albert, 16, ``and one client who's kind of crazy. If she were a kid, I'd most like to be friends with her.''