It is Tuesday at The Lionheart School and a group of the students are seated on one of the school buses with their volunteer name badges proudly displayed on their chests. They are headed to Dogwood Forest, a retirement village located near the school. The students’ smiles shine with anticipation as the bus comes to a stop at Dogwood’s front entrance. The only thing slowing these teens down is the crowd of residents waiting for them to arrive – residents the students consider friends. The students patiently navigate the hallway, while greetings are exchanged amongst this mutual fan club.
With the excitement of greetings complete, the teens divide into two groups and head off to their respective wings of Dogwood. The first group heads to the memory care center, Inspirations Neighborhood, where they find the staff playing word games or enjoying a song with the seniors, with hopes of triggering a memory. More greetings are exchanged – hellos, hugs and handshakes that are often repeated during the time spent in the center. While chiming into the game or song, the students set about their work of setting tables and preparing for the residents’ lunch. Too quickly, the teen volunteers have finished their job in this wing and say their goodbyes. They make their way back to the front desk and begin their second task – mail delivery. Some students will go about this job independently while others continue to learn the ropes with a teacher/job coach.
The second group of teens head to the bistro located in independent living wing of Dogwood. There they meet up with residents for an old-fashion game of bean bag toss, putt –putt, balloon volleyball or horseshoes. Encouraged to take charge, the students choose the game, set it up, score the game and, at times, help a senior physically play the game. The laughter is contagious and the participation easy among this group. The time flies and soon the teens are making their goodbyes in this wing as well.
Dogwood Forest is one of four vocational work sites that currently welcome Lionheart for Life students. Through the school’s vocational program, students are encouraged to work as independently as possible at each work site. In doing so, students gain confidence in themselves and their abilities while exploring a variety of tasks and potential work environments.
This fall, The Lionheart School and Dogwood Forest Assisted Living Community will begin the fourth year of their partnership. Lionheart School students are being given an incredible opportunity for social and vocational growth through this relationship. The chemistry between the generations is incredible. Students with autism and other communication differences are benefitting from the pace of life at Dogwood, the kind wisdom of their older friends, and steady support while they willingly serve others. Working in a positive, loving, and welcoming environment is so important for these teens and the skills they are learning at Dogwood that will transfer to a variety of other work locations.
It is Tuesday; however, if you ask the staff and residents of Dogwood Forest as well as the Lionheart for Life students, they’ll simply tell you it is the best day of the week!