At first glance, 10-year-old Amaris Cabrera and 94-year-old Marilynn Seekins didn't have much in common.
As they sat in the common room of the Pine Grove Residence Building at Vista Del Monte Retirement Community on Thursday, conversation between the fifth-grader and the nonagenarian came a bit slow.
As the pair began to work on an activity together, however, threads of connection began to form.
They both love dogs, and they discovered that they share a love for the water after Seekins asked Cabrera about a junior lifeguard insignia on her sweatshirt, a swim camp Cabrera had taken at Refugio the summer before.
"I was excited to learn about her. She's really sweet," the Coastline Christian School fifth-grader said of her "Vista friend."
Cabrera's class, led by teacher Deedee Underwood, was there with her on Thursday as they made their quarterly trip to Vista Del Monte and Pine Grove to spend time with the residents of the building, many of whom are experiencing varying degrees of memory impairment.
On Thursday morning, about 10 students were paired up with a half-dozen Vista residents to do a shared activity together, with Underwood's help as well as that of Vista activity coordinator Karis Anderson.
Tables were set up in Pine Grove's lobby, and a worksheet about bees was used to break the ice between the kids and the adults, with both working to fill in answers as Anderson talked about the insects.
Cabrera and Seekins were paired up and helped each other through the activity.
When Seekins said she was having trouble writing in the answers, Cabrera jumped right in.
"That's OK," she told the older woman, helping her with the pencil.
Underwood was nearby, checking on the kids and encouraging them to help their Vista friends before working on their own worksheets.
She's been bringing the fifth-graders who come through her class to Vista for about three years.
Each of the school's classes pick a service project — the school's third-grade class recently stopped by Friendship Manor, where they got an impromptu ballroom dancing class from residents — and connecting with Vista residents has become a hallmark of Underwood's class.
"The first time they visit, it's a little scary for them," she said, but after the first five minutes or so, the kids and their Vista friends start to connect.
Opportunities for children and older adults to interact are rare, especially if grandparents aren't actively involved in a child's life, and Underwood has used the visits as a conversation starter.
"We talk in class about what they've learned about their Vista friends, and it's good to remind the kids that the residents used to be 10-year-olds themselves," she said.
Before each visit, Underwood talks with the class about the scenarios that might come up with residents in the memory care unit and how the kids should respond.
The visits have also resulted in a larger discussion among the fifth-graders about elder care in Santa Barbara, and how older people deserve to be treated.
"They deserve to be listened to," one student told the class during those conversations.
Anderson, who has worked at Vista for four years, said the residents are more cheerful after they've been with the children.
"I like to say it's a breath of fresh air," Anderson said. "Outside of any family that comes to visit, they don't really see very many younger people. It's a really sweet thing, and it's mutually beneficial."
For more information about volunteer opportunities at Vista Del Monte, Anderson can be reached at [email protected].