Newswise — For 21 years, Rosetta Herron has served youth at schools in Omaha as part of the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging’s Foster Grandparent program, an initiative partnering members of the Omaha community’s 55-and-over population with student mentees who could use just a little bump in schoolwork and social development.

“I made up my mind when I retired — I wasn’t going to sit around in a rocking chair,” Herron said. “I wanted to keep on going. Helping kids seemed like the best way to do that.”

Having turned 90 in October, Herron said she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

“Not as long as you keep visiting me and helping me stay healthy and mobile,” she said with a smile to Rachael Hughes, a first-year physical therapy student in the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions at Creighton University.

Dec. 1 at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Benson, Hughes was one of the entire first-year class of students in the Department of Physical Therapy who visited Herron and the nearly 70 Foster Grandparents who work with ENOA. The students spent 90 minutes with the grandmas and grandpas as part of an annual partnership between Creighton and ENOA to provide general health and wellness checks for the Foster Grandparents.

While taking vital signs and teaching various exercises to improve flexibility and mobility was the ostensible reason for the students’ presence, the happy chorus of conversation on a range of topics may have been the true order of the day.

“It’s the perfect way for us to tie into an organization that does such incredible service to our community,” said Kirk Peck, PT, PhD, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy, who has helped lead the partnership with ENOA for the past four years. “Students are getting an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in three different classes over the past semester and put it to use here. There are some phenomenal things happening at these tables.”

The three courses coming together in this semester-concluding project are behavioral and social science taught by Kate Henkin, PhD, basic sciences taught by Michelle Reilly, DPT, and exercise physiology taught by Peck.

As the first interaction with patients outside of a lab setting, meeting with the Foster Grandparents always proves a memorable cornerstone as the students conclude their opening semester.

“It’s one of those foundational experiences that they can always come back to,” said Henkin, whose class focuses on the emotional, spiritual and educational side of physical therapy practice. “As the students move forward, we hope this was a moment where they saw themselves learning to move forward through patient interaction. A few of them come in a little apprehensive about it, but in the years that we’ve been doing it, I think everyone takes away a great sense of gratitude for the interactions.”

As a service-learning project, this one is unique in its thrust. Service to a group providing service to some of society’s most vulnerable — at-risk youth — gave Creighton students pause as they reflected on the work they’d just undertaken.

“These are people who go out into the community and help kids,” said Jaymes Sajczuk, a first-year physical therapy student. “Kids who are struggling at school and need that positive role model. The more we can help them here, the longer they can serve, helping that next generation.”

To qualify as a Foster Grandparent, an individual must be at least 55 years of age. They must have a willingness to work with a child in a one-on-one setting and provide positive guidance for the students. They earn $2.65 an hour and some of them work upwards of 30 hours a week, but the money is a pale comparison to the feeling received in providing the mentorship.

“I get so much out of it,” said Joe Maddox, whose 16 years as a Foster Grandparent has earned him the affectionate nickname “Papa Joe.” “I get to help the kids but I think they help me more. I get so much joy out of it. The feeling inside is incredible.”

The feeling was replicated for Creighton students working with the Foster Grandparents. Even as students shared exercise and mobility tips and talked with Foster Grandparents about diet and nutrition, the door swung wide the other way as the older generation opened up about what has fired their lives.

“It’s been a great learning experience for me,” said Rachael Hughes, who was paired with Rosetta Herron. “There’s so much we can all learn from everyone in this room.”

Creighton’s involvement with the program goes back about seven years. Kate Martens Stricklett, MS, assistant director of interprofessional community engagement, said the partnership stems from Creighton’s desire to connect with diverse populations. The senior population is one that sometimes can be overlooked.

“The population is shifting and will continue to shift in these next 20 to 30 years,” Martens Stricklett said. “Providing this service, we see it as very reciprocal. We can help the older generation stay healthy. They can, in turn, go out and be that positive influence for the younger generation. It’s a very symbiotic, special relationship and a natural fit for Creighton.”

Mary Parker, the volunteer services division director for ENOA, said finding Creighton has been a blessing to the Foster Grandparents program.

“We want our Foster Grandparents to do what they do with us for as long as they can,” Parker said. “It’s been proven that to keep healthy it’s important to stay active. Creighton allows us to do just that. And we have a lot of people who are in their 60s and 70s who have been with us for a long time now. Many of our grandmas and grandpas say that they’ve been a Foster Grandparent longer than any other job they’ve ever had and they love that.”

With service for service as the theme of the physical therapy students’ work, Herron said the Creighton commitment helps remind her of her own focus.

“It’s the children,” she said. “The main thing is the kids. The fact that I get to work with them, to show them their numbers and their alphabet and to be a positive influence in their lives, I am so happy to be a part of that and happy that Creighton comes to help me keep on doing it.”

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging healthlawbusiness and the arts and sciences for a more just world.

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