By Kayla Sosa | photography by Two Eagles Marcus
An extraordinary union takes place every day at a daycare center in downtown Grand Rapids. There are rooms of children of all ages, playing, as one would expect, but in one room, young children are playing and interacting with senior citizens.
The Bethlehem Intergenerational Center (BIC) opened two year ago and is located inside Bethlehem Church at 22 Commerce Avenue. Formerly known as Hill Child Development Center, which ran for 46 years, the center brings together the young and old to have fun and learn.
“Every day is different in our world,” Sue Davidson, director of the center, laughed.
Inside of the vast building, there is an early childhood wing, where children of various ages spend their days learning and playing; and a senior wing, which the children call, “The Rose Room.”
“A couple of the children have breakfast in the senior wing every day,” Davidson said as she described a typical day at the center.
Through small group activities like music and board games, the children and seniors develop a natural friendship.
“I have to say, that is my favorite time,” Davidson said. “Because that’s where real conversations happen, that’s
where real relationships are built, because they’re choosing; it’s not something we set out.”
The bonding time is not only good for the children to interact with elderly, and sometimes disabled, people, but it’s also a time for the seniors to engage. Davidson said many of the seniors in the program have early onset dementia and use a wheelchair or walker.
“For the kids, it really helps develop a sense of empathy,” Davidson expressed. “For our seniors, it is absolutely that sense of self-worth. They are making a difference — they understand that they are changing lives every day, so it’s a benefit both ways.”
Currently, there are 12 seniors and 45 children at the center. This summer, Davidson expects some older kids to come back during their break from school. She said the older kids especially love being in the Rose Room, because they can have more meaningful conversations.
“Every day is different in our world.”— Sue Davidson, director of the Bethlehem Intergenerational Center
“We do things to encourage those conversations,” Davidson said. “Like, Mondays are show and tell day. There are a lot of coffee table book, which are great conversation starters, because they’re looking at these beautiful pictures of places maybe they visited, or there’s an old Grand Rapids [book] in there.”
When it’s warm outside, groups will take trips to the nearby parks, play outside in the church’s playground or tend to the church garden.
“Some of our [senior] participants will go to the library with them,” Davidson said. “It’s always a choice in the senior wing. They get to choose.”
Many seniors at the center are in the final span of their lives. Davidson said the teachers at the center make it a priority to have conversations about death and not make it a confusing or scary topic. Last year, for the first time, a senior in the program passed away.
“I was very honest with the kids about it, and we brought out the photo albums and we looked at pictures of him,” Davidson said. “We talked about the fun things we did. They knew that it was OK and they could be sad. We were all sad, and we miss him, but it’s a real thing that happens in their lives.”
Jill Bosnjak is member of the church, and her five-year-old daughter Sasha goes to BIC every week.
“I wouldn’t change it now, my daughter loves it,” Bosnjak said. “It’s just a chance for them to have new experiences and meet new people and learn to interact with adults that they’re not comfortable with at first.”
Davidson hopes to see more seniors sign up to attend
To find out more, or to sign up, visit bethlehemintergenerationalcenter.org.