STEP Program Builds Bridges Between The Young and Old

Young and Older Olympians Make Great Strides By Sitting Around Talking.

When Ronan Piper, then a high school sophomore, began attending meet- ings of the Sharing Teens and Elders Project (STEP) in Olympia, Washington, he was apprehensive. Piper didn’t know what he, other teens and a bunch of people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s would be able to talk about for an hour.

He was pleasantly surprised. Piper enjoyed hearing about what the “elders,” as they are called in the program, had lived through. One of his favorite topics: the 1969 moon landing. For Piper, speaking with the elders makes the information in his history books real. He likes to talk to them about where they’ve lived and traveled, and he especially appreciates that they listen to what he has to say.

Piper’s experience delights Linda Terry, who founded STEP in 2014. A cognitive fitness coach and brain health educator, Terry created the program after attending a salmon journey ceremony with the Squaxin Island Native American tribe. She was struck by the positive way the tribe’s teens engaged with older people.

“I thought, ‘What would happen if I got teenagers and elders together?’” Terry says. She began with a dozen teenagers and as many older residents. The gathering has since grown into a monthly meeting of 50 participants at the Olympia Senior Center. Teens wanting to join must complete an application and go through a short training session. The older participants sign a code of conduct.

More than 100 teenagers and 70 adults have taken part in the free program, which is affiliated with Senior Services for South Sound. Initially, the group played brain games, but the attendees told Terry they would rather just talk. Now she suggests discussion topics.

“It’s been amazing. The elders say they don’t feel their pains, that they have hope for the future. We are changing the social norm,” Terry says, adding that the students “have never pulled out their phones. It tells me how much the teens crave conversation.”

Patricia Kennedy, a talkative, vibrant woman in her 70s, moved to Olympia in 2014, having spent 20 years as a coffee farmer in Costa Rica. She finds that the teenagers are “curious about things we did that changed history, such as the Vietnam War and protests.” She notices how the students and elders interact beyond STEP in ways they hadn’t done before. “They see us as real people,” Kennedy observes. “I really believe we’re not invisible to them anymore.

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