Student Volunteers at Willow Towers Honored for Extraordinary Service

April 21

Fordham Prep Student Group Named NYSCAL ‘Volunteers of the Year’ 

With the widespread lifestyle of the modern American family, older loved ones are increasingly separated from their families and other support systems. Adding to physical distances, the perennial generation gap persists, emphasized by the latest catch phrase “OK Boomer,” used by Generation Z to dismiss their elders. To help bridge this gap, an innovative program at United Hebrew is promoting intergenerational understanding and creating opportunities for young and old to connect with mutual respect.  

The program brings high school volunteers from Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx together with senior residents at Willow Towers Assisted Living. The student volunteers dedicate themselves to spending time with residents socially and engaging in an array of projects designed to support the community 

For their service, the Fordham Prep volunteers have been awarded the 2023 NYSCAL Volunteer of the Year award from the New York State Health Facilities Association/New York State Center for Assisted Living, a leading long-term care industry group. The program recognizes outstanding volunteers serving in adult care/assisted living facilities. 

The students are “honored and humbled” to be recognized, according to Paul Homer, Fordham Prep faculty member and director of Christian service. “Our young men have always found Willow Towers to be a community that strives for the very best for its residents and one that cares personally about each person who volunteers there. We are very grateful to them for nominating us, as we have enjoyed a wonderful relationship for many years. Their staff has been more than generous in offering placements to our seniors. They have been more than supervisors to our young men. They have been mentors.” 

Intergenerational connections 

A growing body of evidence demonstrates the benefits of intergenerational activities. Older people experience improvements in cognitive function, lower anxiety, and increased physical activity while young people benefit with the support derived from meaningful relationships and show an improvement in communication skills and attitudes toward older adults.  

The staff at Willow Towers have served as “true partners” in the students’ personal development, adds Homer.  

“They have pointed out how much students and residents have to give to each other. Our young men have come to see the residents not as people who are primarily in need, but instead as persons who have a lifetime’s worth of experience and wisdom to share. They’ve been educated about the realities and challenges of aging and infirmity and shown by the example of staff what it means to be a caring companion. They have also been encouraged to share their own talents and interests with the residents.”  

Those activities include technology training so that residents learn how to better navigate their personal technology devices; sharing lessons learned in school or thoughts on a book they’re reading; interviewing residents to record their stories and write resident profiles; and working on puzzles and simple games with residents diagnosed with dementia and who have limited verbal communication. 

“Students have helped us serve ice cream set up for special events, and organize books in the library,” says Deborah King, director of recreation and volunteers. “And what’s really special is that they have all challenged one of our residents, Robert Kya Hill, with games of chess—though no one has been able to beat him!” 

Willow Towers staff ensure all of the volunteers know how much they are appreciated with frequent reports about each individual student’s strengths and areas for further growth. Each senior has received a thank you card at the end of the volunteer placement with best wishes as he transitions to college. Says Homer, “In every sense, the staff at Willow Towers and their wonderful residents have been our partners in seeking to form our students into ‘men for and with others.’” 

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, explains King. 

“We’re grateful for the students who keep our residents engaged with the world around them, which is so important as they age. For almost all of them, volunteering at Willow Towers is their first experience in elder care. Time and again, they arrive with a willingness to help with any task. They’re all incredibly kind, respectful, and responsible. They are so deserving of this recognition. Simply put, the friendships between older and younger people make our community stronger.”