The golden light of a setting autumn sun was appropriate illumination as the teenager chatted with the Dixon House resident. Jazmine Gibson reached out across a few feet of front porch and more than seven decades of time to capture the memories of Henry Paine at the assisted living facility.
The informal interview was part of a Talbot Mentors oral histories project. Three teenage mentees, Gibson, Bethany Dixon and Manisha Camper, have spent hours over the past months talking with about fifteen Dixon House residents, all in their 70s, 80s or 90s. Their notes, quotes and photos will be compiled into a unique scrapbook to be presented to the facility once complete.
Mary Ann Ray, former Service Learning Coordinator with Talbot Mentors, conceived the project last year with two goals in mind. “I saw the seniors at Dixon House as additional mentors for our young people,” she said.
“They certainly can view life from a different perspective than a teenager. They have survived so many ups and downs in their 80 or 90 years and can give good advice to a teen who may feel overwhelmed by a momentary disappointment.”
The project also provided a service learning opportunity for the mentees, who require a minimum number of volunteer hours in order to graduate from high school.
The students each had a form from which to work, with a series of questions serving as a starting point for their conversations. From simple biographical data and favorite foods and music, the questions progressed to thought-provoking inquiries into memories of survival stories in their lives and advice for teens.
Some memories can be impossible to erase. Oneita McCall recalled a day when she was ice skating and a little boy fell through the ice. She reached out for him, but could not hold on. A number of other residents remembered surviving hurricanes and car accidents, while Helen Van Horn said she feels lucky to have survived the Great Depression.
The residents also shared their most pleasant memories with the teens. Elizabeth Mayhew loved to dance as a child and still has the tap shoes she used to wear. Milton Agreen, who will turn 100 this year, remembers going swimming at Asbury Park, New Jersey, as the most exciting part of his childhood. His favorite memory is when he proposed to his wife and she accepted.
Most of the advice the seniors had for teens was similar to Oneita McCall’s counsel to “try to always do the right thing” or Helen Van Horn’s admonishment to “listen to your parents.” Elizabeth Barton elaborated by saying, “When you learn what’s right and wrong when you’re younger, you won’t forget it when you’re older.”
Vita Karwoski encouraged the teens to follow their goals and never stop trying. “Believe in yourself,” she added.
The goal of the Talbot Mentors project was captured by Catherine Curran’s advice for teens. “Don’t be too quick to judge people,” she said, “because there is always something to learn.”
For more information, to make a contribution, or to volunteer as a mentor, call Talbot Mentors at 410-770-5999 or visit www.talbotmentors.org.