Once a month for the last 21 years, Angela Bronson has taken her fourth-grade class at Balboa Magnet School on a field trip back in time to the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda.
The kids and the elderly residents mingle and get to know each other, then they pair up with a “buddy” they like, and the kids interview them for a short story they will write on their buddy’s life. At the end of the school year, they give them the book.
There’s a 103-year-old resident who has lived through 18 different presidents sitting on the patio talking with a 9-year old boy who has lived through one.
There’s a 95-year-old man who hasn’t taken a step on his own in three years getting out of his wheelchair to take six just to surprise his new buddy walking down the hallway toward him with a box of crayons in her hand.
And, there’s a 98-year-old resident who was a young woman when she met and became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt sitting in the day room sharing memories with her 10-year-old new buddy she hasn’t even shared with her family.
You get the picture. These visits are priceless, at least I thought they were. Turns out I was wrong. They’re not even worth $4,000 a year.
A charitable foundation formed by a wealthy couple who couldn’t have children of their own began paying the $4,000 annual cost to rent school buses for the short, monthly journey to the home and back to school later in the day. But the foundation has been dissolved and is no longer able to pay for buses.
May was the last visit the kids made to the home. They gave their buddies the books they had written about them, and then they hugged and said goodbye with more than a few tears shed. They wouldn’t be coming back when school resumes this month.
On a teacher’s salary, Angela Bronson can’t afford to rent those buses herself, and no one else is stepping forward to help. She thinks maybe it’s because people don’t understand this is so much more than just a field trip to the zoo or children’s museum.
This is a field trip back in a time for her kids with their own personal guide who was there. What an incredible learning experience it provides.
It’s a shame the people with the purse strings couldn’t talk to the parents of her students through the years, and see for themselves. Maybe it would change their minds. It sure changed mine.
In 2007, I followed the growing friendship of 9-year-old Ethan Jackola and his 89-year-old buddy Jack Etlin. The two hit it off, but it took a little time.
Jack could be a bit ornery and he was hard of hearing, so Ethan had to keep repeating himself. The boy could have asked for a new buddy, but he didn’t. Jack’s smile and the stories he was telling fascinated him.
Ethan would take him outside in his wheelchair, and Jack would talk about his childhood, civil rights, segregation, women getting the vote, all the major issues of his day.
Sharon Jackola, Ethan’s mother, said she had never seen her son so excited about anything as he was about writing this book on the life of his new buddy.
The night before the last visit when the kids would let their buddy’s read what they had written, Ethan wrote this.
“I made Jack feel happy. I know this because when I had to go get Jack from his room, he was hanging his head down. When he saw me, he lifted his head and brightened up. That was a special moment for me and this made me know I was special to him.
“At first I didn’t hug Jack, but then I started hugging him when I left. If I could give Jack anything, I would give him a good book because he loves to read. Jack’s advice to me was never give up, and when you do a job, do a good job.”
Ethan had done a great job, and couldn’t wait for the morning to give Jack his book. But his buddy wasn’t there. His family had moved him up to a home in the San Francisco area to be by them.
“While all the other kids gave their buddies their books, Ethan sat in the corner alone,” Sharon said. “He looked so sad I almost started crying. We mailed Jack his book.”
A letter from Craig Etlin, one of Jack’s sons, arrived a few months later.
“Dear, Ethan, it is with great sadness I am writing to tell you that my father, and your buddy, Jack, passed away last Saturday. I wanted to let you know how much my dad, my children, and I have enjoyed the book you wrote about my dad.
“We kept it in his room, and every time I took my children to visit him, they wanted me to read the book to them. Whenever I would get to the parts where you wrote ‘never give up,’ my dad would look up and say, “Never give up! Never give up!’
“Your friendship was a blessing to an elderly man in the last year of his life, and your book is a gift that we will cherish in all the years to come.”
And now, Angela Bronson’s fourth-grade field trips back in time that taught her kids respect and gave them an appreciation for the elderly are over because of a measly $4,000. Incredible.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com.