Intergenerational reading group holds first meeting of the year

Program continues to grow in popularity

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

The Intergenerational Reading Program kicked off its third year last Wednesday at Williston Central School with a gathering of 50 middle school students and over a dozen senior citizens.

The program is like a book club that matches up groups of students with senior citizens from the Williston community. The students and the seniors read the same book and then get together monthly at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library to discuss it. The books, chosen by teachers at the school, all have a theme that relates to intergenerational relationships.

The group gathered around tables in the school’s dining room for a potluck lunch last Wednesday to meet each other and receive their first book.

“It’s proven to be fun, the kids are great,” said Germaine Lamothe, 75, in her third year with the program. “They are very sophisticated, very traveled. It seems funny to be talking to a kid who has been to New Zealand or all over England. You get an education, really.”

Callan Suozzi-Rearic, 13, said this was her second year in the reading group. “I like talking to other kids and I love talking to senior citizens about the books because I love reading. It’s an interesting mix of thoughts.”

The program was founded in 2003 with help from a grant from the Vermont Council on the Humanities to promote interaction between students in grades 5-8 and members of the community, and to encourage people to use the library. Parents and library staff have worked hard to make the program a success. Now in its third year, the program has grown substantially since its pilot year.

Parent volunteer and program coordinator Ann Durkee said the program started out as a small group, organized by former Outreach Librarians Ann Van Guilder and Deb Runge. The first group comprised only 10 students and a few senior citizens. This year, the group includes 50 students, 14 senior volunteers and five parent volunteers, and the group will read six books over a six-month period. Durkee said she has been the coordinator for the past two years, but this year she has the help of volunteers Mary Ellen Daniels and Lisa Barland.

The program has grown very popular with Williston students. Williston Central School is divided into upper and lower Houses, or groups of classes in grades 1-4 and 5-8. Durkee said that each of the schools’ six upper Houses has eight slots to fill for the program, and a Language Arts teacher selects the participants. Sometimes there is not enough space for the number of students who volunteer to be in the group.

“It’s up to the teacher’s discretion,” Durkee said. “They know it’s a big commitment.”

Robert Coon, a former faculty member at the University of Vermont’s medical school, said he has been involved with the program from the start.

“It keeps me off the streets,” quipped Coon, 85. “I’ve enjoyed reading the books and enjoyed the interaction with these young ladies,” he said.

Coon’s remark highlighted an obvious feature of the group of students: Girls far outnumber boys.

“We do tend to get more girls to participate at this age,” Durkee said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see a flip, but the boys who have participated have been great.”

Estelle Alsruhe, 71, said she joined the program because she was a literature major in college, and also missed the book club she was involved with in her native Maryland.

Alsruhe said the books she read last year were all related to a theme. “The characters all suffer some kind of loss in their life, and there’s an adult that appears to help them get through it.”

She was also impressed with the students involved with the group. “I had no idea they were so sophisticated,” she said.

Durkee hails the program as a resounding success.

“Over the past few years I have observed the development of a genuine fondness and mutual respect between the participants which far exceeded my expectations,” she said in an e-mail.

The students’ books are purchased with money provided by the Williston school parents’ organization, Families As Partners. The library buys the books for the senior citizens. Durkee said the total cost of the program this year is about $500-$600. When the program is finished, the books will be donated to the library, she said.