Published on 10/23/08

4-H’ers treat elderly to fall festival

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Instead of heading home after school to get ready to trick-or-treat, Bacon County 4-H’ers will go to the Twin Oaks Nursing Home in Alma, Ga., to hand out treats and good times.

Every year, 4-H’ers run the home’s fall festival – a project that is one of many the students do to help the town’s elderly residents.

“I feel like it’s so important to teach our young people to give back to the community,” said Ann Wildes, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension 4-H agent in Bacon County. “If you don’t give them the opportunity to give back to make their community better, they’re not going to know how to or where to give back. And we all have the responsibility of serving others and striving to make our communities a better place to live and grow.”

Seven years ago, nursing home staff asked Wildes to help with the festival. The next year, her 4-H’ers planned it, secured prizes, served as escorts, took photographs, worked the booths and cleaned up afterwards.

No resident is left out. Each one who participates receives a prize at each booth. Whether it’s a diet soda, stuffed animal, necklace, chips, plastic clapping hands or a crazy hat, the prizes are safe and fun. The 4-H’ers work closely with the home’s staff to make sure they are.

“The 4-H’ers who help out at this event volunteer to come. They learn the importance of commitment to a project,” Wildes said. “(They learn) the elderly are not to be feared or shunned, and they have a responsibility to bring joy and fun into the lives of the elderly.”

Georgia’s state 4-H leader Bo Ryles says programs that connect young people and the elderly enhance life for both groups.

“Bacon County 4-H’ers’ work with the elderly is outstanding,” Ryles said. “This is just one of many ways 4-H programs give back to their communities across the state.”

Working with the elderly isn’t for every 4-H’er, Wildes said, but some children have a gift for it.

“At one time, we had a young man who didn’t participate in anything but going to the nursing home,” she said. “That was his moment that just shined.”

At first, she said, going to the nursing home was hard for her. She now teaches her students to give back to the community’s seniors.

“They are the ones who have gone before us,” she said. “They have so much wisdom. There is a lot we can learn from them. If we will only take the time and give of ourselves, then we will be the ones blessed.”

The students do more than just the festival. Each month, they hold a bingo game at the Sun City Retirement Home. Wildes started the Sun City game 25 years ago when she was a high school teacher. She continued it when she became the county’s UGA Extension agent 10 years ago.

Wildes uses the game to teach responsibility. To help, students must commit to go to the nursing home every month. One student and her mother did more than just bingo. They bought groceries and cleaned house for a resident who was hospitalized.

The 4-H’ers organize a beauty pageant for elderly residents on Valentine’s Day, an Easter celebration and classes at the local senior center, too.

“To me there’s just a unique connection between the elderly and children, something my age group doesn’t have with them,” Wildes said. “They just have a special relationship. The elderly love it, love it, love it when the children come to visit.”

Wildes wants the students to realize that they will grow old one day, too.

“If you expect someone to come visit you, send you a card, give a gift, you need to be modeling that for the children coming behind you,” she said. “I think our elderly people should never, ever be forgotten.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.