Blue Cluster’s “Sweet” Community Outreach

Posted on Thursday, March 14th, 2024

Over the course of five weeks, nine Blue Cluster students in Head Teacher Erika Bentsen’s advisory participated in Sweet Readers, a program that connects middle school students with adults with Alzheimer’s in an immersive, art-based program. Students had initially begun volunteering with Sweet Readers in 2019, and though the semester was unfortunately cut short due to the pandemic, they were excited to have the opportunity again this year! 

Before they started, the students were visited by Karen Young, the co-founder of Sweet Readers, for some training on what to expect when working with the adults in the program. Gaynor Speech & Language Pathologist Carly Dash also spoke with the group from a language specialist’s perspective about the best types of questions to ask, and tips and strategies for the conversations they would be having with people who have memory loss. With this preparation in mind, students then began the program at The Apsley Senior Living Community on the Upper West Side, with Gaynor Psychologist Kat Pearl to help facilitate. 

For the duration of the program, the students worked with their assigned resident to make booklets that portrayed themes of identity, love, dreams, and more. In their conversations with the residents, students asked questions about their families and where the residents are from, and also about their favorite places and what they dream about. 

Ms. Bentsen reflected on how great this experience was for the students, “It was Gaynor students in their best light. They were so committed to the activity, and felt really proud of themselves.” 

The students themselves also reflected on their participation in the program, and what they felt they learned from their experience. As Emily O. said, “I think it was an awesome experience to have and I would love to do it again. We had so much fun, but my favorite part was just seeing how happy they were every day that we can work with them and the joy we can bring to their day.” Henry R. added that, “I think young people should volunteer to help the community so they can gain experience helping the older community or learn new things that will help later in life.” 

Volunteering is a great way for the students to meet others outside of Gaynor who have lived different lives than them, and for them to gain the perspective of what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. “This is such an opportunity for them to be a leader and develop empathy and perspective for a population that is often ignored in society,” Ms. Bentsen said. 

The Blue Cluster’s participation in Sweet Readers will continue in April with Head Teacher Emily Ngau’s class.