Campus: Sonoma State University -- November 14, 2003

Middle School Pen Pals To Seniors Bridges One Generation Gap

Dismayed by the lack of connections between Sonoma County youth and senior citizens, Nedda Bakhshi has taken the old idea of pen pals to new places.

Bakhshi, a senior in Sonoma State University's gerontology program, created a program this fall semester called "Side-By-Side" as a new way for students and seniors to connect and share life experiences through letter writing and quarterly parties.

The Side-By-Side program is designed to bring generations together in a world where many seniors and young people do not interact on a regular basis.

In order to forge stronger ties between the two groups, Bakhshi arranged the twenty-seven students of Diane Nelson's seventh-grade class at Petaluma Middle School into "families" of five to six students.

These "families" exchange letters with seniors from the Petaluma Senior Center once a month. After three months of exchanging letters, there will be a party where the seventh-grade "families" and their senior pen pal will finally be able to meet.

The seniors take part in teaching the students about the ways they lived years ago. One woman writes about growing up as one of twelve siblings on an Illinois farm. "We had no electricity or running water so we used gas lights. We used a large well and it was the best water in the country. My dad baked bread every two days. We brought all of our vegetables out of the garden."

Her letter not only teaches the Petaluma seventh graders about farm life many years ago, but also emphasizes connections to land and family. Though she has only one hand and suffers from emphysema, she sent them a two-page typewritten letter about her life.

The students shared stories of their families, grades, favorite sports and career aspirations. "For soccer I travel to Hawaii and Sacramento and a lot of other places. My dream is to play for Santa Clara University," writes Sarah, a member of the "family" corresponding with her senior friend.

The Persian-born student was part of a similar program several years ago writing to terminally ill adults.

"We live in such a youth-oriented society that we unconsciously tend to segregate an enormous part of our history - our elders, " says Bakhshi.

"Through faults of our own society I believe we lose so much if we leave our elders aside. They have lived an entire life and can teach us lessons that may take us our entire lifetimes to learn."

In addition, she adds, "spending time with elders can teach our younger generations patience, common etiquette and most importantly respect."

Jean Wasp, Media Relations, (707) 664-2057

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