Technology links Sacramento-area first-graders, retirees

During a video call Wednesday, Kohler Elementary first-graders greet Eskaton Village residents, including Roland Evans, at left on-screen and Betty MacKinnon, center. The kids celebrated their 100th day of school by interviewing Evans while the centenarian wore a hat they made for him. Teacher Bobbi Donovan sits with the kids, and Principal Kelly Grashoff, far right, watches on a laptop.

It didn’t take long for Bobbi Donovan’s first-grade students to shed their hesitation and greet their new pen pals.

Within minutes of meeting, kids from Kohler Elementary School in North Highlands were climbing into the laps of residents at Eskaton Village, a retirement community in Carmichael.

In October, each of Donovan’s 26 students was assigned a resident in the assisted living unit at Eskaton. The kids now call them “buddies.”

The kids met with their buddies at Eskaton in December and over the course of the school year have used Skype, an Internet video calling service, to stay in touch.

“I think it’s a great program,” said Betty MacKinnon, 92, who has two buddies in Donovan’s class. “All my grandchildren are grown, so I love it.”

Besides forging relationships, the program has been a teaching tool for Donovan and Adam Hill, Eskaton’s assisted living activity coordinator.

The children practice their reading and writing by sending letters, e-mails and Christmas cards – and by reading books – to the Eskaton residents. Eskaton residents, meanwhile, are learning to use computers.

On Wednesday, Donovan’s students celebrated the 100th day of school. They interviewed 100-year-old Roland Evans on Skype and wore handmade hats with 100 things drawn on them. They made a hat for Evans.

Kids took turns asking Evans questions. They asked him what it feels like to be 100.

“You feel quite old,” he answered.

Students asked what kinds of things Evans did when he was in first grade.

“I paid attention to the teacher and learned to spell words.”

The class also read a book about the 100th day of school to Eskaton residents.

The kids will visit again Feb. 9, to present stories they wrote about Eskaton residents. The Kohler kids and Eskaton residents hope to arrange several more visits before the end of the school year.

“They are very curious,” said Evans, who worked for the Franchise Tax Board before retiring. “They are very impressed that I’ve lived to be 100. I’m less impressed.”

Donovan’s sister, Betsy Donovan, is the executive director at Eskaton Village. The two came up with the idea for the exchange, hoping it would become a learning tool and teach the kids about aging. Neither expected it would be so fruitful.

Eskaton is “focused on people getting a better understanding of the aging process,” Bobbi Donovan said. “This has been wonderful for all of us to learn.”

Eskaton sponsors the outings, providing a bus, T-shirts and lunch. Betsy Donovan said the outings are worth the $250 price tag.

“That’s really the only way we are able to do this,” Bobbi Donovan said.

What surprised the sisters was how quickly the kids’ hesitation disappeared. Bobbi Donovan said she had talked to her class about being gentle with the residents.

“On the first day, the kids were walking up hesitant, thinking ‘You’re an older person, I’m not sure,’ ” Betsy Donovan said. “Then in 10 minutes they were on their laps, hugging them. It was just amazing.”

Many of Eskaton’s 400 residents had successful careers. The 15 assisted living residents participating in the Kohler Elementary exchange are retired physicians, teachers, state workers and others. During the visits, they tell kids how important it is to try hard in school.

“We want this to be a prototype for Eskaton and senior communities generally,” Betsy Donovan said.

“Already, in a short amount of time it has gone beyond what I could have imagined.”

Eskaton has 35 communities from Sacramento to the Oregon border.

The residents have been excited to learn computer programs like Skype and are finding other uses for it outside the Kohler program.

“They never knew that the capability of being able to talk with their son that lives in Alaska was there,” Hill said. “Especially, for free.”

From front left, Savana Clark, Luz Martinez Lopez and Jessamine Taylor and their North Highlands classmates shout goodbye to the retirees in Carmichael.

Using Skype, an Internet video calling service, a computer links Kohler Elementary students with residents of Eskaton Village in Carmichael. The Eskaton residents are finding other uses for Skype, too, such as talking long-distance with relatives – for free.