Bringing Elders And Kids Together

Susan Page
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Wednesday - September 28, 2005
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When I made my first visit to Seagull School in Kapolei two weeks ago, I wasn’t really sure what story I was covering. It seems a woman from Kalaupapa was coming to visit the little preschool children, because where she lives children aren’t allowed. What I found was that - and so much more.

The children at Seagull School at Kapolei have a different way of looking at things. When they see a person in a wheelchair or with crutches, hearing aids or physical deformities - a scary sight to many 3- or 4-year-olds - they only see someone with a hug to share. They see someone who can read to them, do a craft, or watch them master a new skill, like skipping, tying a bow or snapping their fingers.

Then I got it. With the help of Seagull co-founder Chuck Larson, I got why Olivia Breitha, 89 - diagnosed with Hansen’s disease (commonly called leprosy) at 18 and who has lived on Kalaupapa for 71 years - wanted to come to Seagull School. The children are used to people who look like her.

“The children accepted Olivia fully,” explains Larson, who as executive director oversees three preschools on Oahu and one on the Big Island of Hawaii. “Our adult day care is most unique in that the adults are surrounded by children, like a village.” A neighbor of Larson’s told Olivia of the Seagull program.

Built in 1998, the location in Kapolei is an intergenerational school, the only one of its kind in Hawaii and one of only about 200 such places in the U.S. It combines the care for young children and older adults using a curriculum developed to bring children and senior citizens together for their mutual benefit.

The adult day care room, the first stop on our tour of this spacious, busy “village,” was flanked with wide, tall windows with full view of the children’s playground and a covered pavilion. Hawaiian history art decorated the walls.

“If you’re happy and you know it say ‘Amen,’” sings a lady accompanied by her ukulele and two other singers. “Amen!” the 40 or so mostly mentally and/or physically challenged adults shouted in answer. Having parents in assisted-living facilities, I recognize the challenges of adult day care. This is a warm, inviting place.

But we didn’t stay there long. After all, the wheelchair-bound Olivia was visiting Seagull to see children. (After vigorous lobbying efforts, Olivia was delighted when the state Legislature enacted law signed by the governor allowing children to visit the restricted peninsula of Kalaupapa on Molokai. However, much to her dismay, the state Health Department suspended child visitations, bowing to pressure by a faction of Kalaupapa patients who vehemently oppose them.)

Once out onto the school playground, Olivia attracted one little one, then another. Her hands deformed by her long-cured disease, were both held and high-fived by eager children. The hugs were automatic and oblivious. It was obvious that early on these little ones had been desensitized to the outer manifestations of aging or disabilities.

“The children are so used to the older adults in wheelchairs that if they were in Longs or anywhere, they wouldn’t be afraid or shy,” says Larson, who serves as the current president of the Hawaii Intergenerational Network.

Once inside Miss Germaine’s bright, inviting classroom, the kids’ reaction to Olivia was no different.

“Can you read me this?” Little Kobi plopped a big book on Olivia’s lap. Others crowded in to see the pages. Olivia seemed to know all about Scooby Doo and how to capture a 4-year-old’s imagination. I thought, how cool is this nearly 90-year-old? Julie Sigler, her RN, traveling companion and advocate, confided to having brought her own grandchild to Kalaupapa where Olivia got an extended indoctrination into Scooby, Shaggy and other such characters.

I wished my own children (now adults) had had the opportunity to go to a school where they could be socialized with people with disabilities. My son was about 4 when he went over to a man who had a large red birthmark covering his arm. Before I could stop him, he said, “What’s that thing on your arm?” The man wasn’t amused and I was mortified. Then, there was the little daughter of a teammate of mine who, when she met our coach who had no legs, said, “What happened to you? Did a bear eat you?”

And, at the same time, I wish my mother and mother-in-law in their respective elder care facilities could hear the playful laughter of little children and interact with them each day. It would be so enriching. Just like in a village.

If you would like to volunteer at Seagull Schools (they need adults to help out), call 674-1444 or go to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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