Connecting Generations

New Elder Mentor program invites seniors to work with Early Learning Center

Eva Atchak burps an infant while volunteering at Clare Swan Early Learning Center. She is the first senior to work with the center through the new Elder Mentor program.

Eva Atchak never knew her grandparents; they both passed away when Eva’s mother was only four years old. Today, Eva has six grandkids herself—three in Palmer, and three in Washington state.

But when she comes to Clare Swan Early Learning Center (CSELC) each week, Eva has dozens of grandchildren.

As a volunteer with CSELC’s new Elder Mentor program, Eva acts as an honorary grandma three times a week when she visits the little ones, ages six weeks to five years, enrolled at the center.

“It makes my day to spend time with them,” Eva shared. “I get the joy of seeing them being excited about playing, about learning how to share and be nice. The little ones make me still feel like a grandma.”

A new partnership with RurAL CAP, the CSELC Elder Mentor program hopes to enrich the lives of children through access to cultural values and social connection. Elders who spend time with the children read to them, play games, do crafts—and provide a special connection not all Anchorage children may have access to.

“We have found that a lot of our families living here in town have lost that connection to their greater [Native] community, especially the kids who are no longer growing up in the villages,” said CSELC Health, Safety, and Nutrition Manager Celena Akens. “Our goal was to bring in Elder mentors to help build more community ties, get some of that historical knowledge to these younger ages, and help the families feel more connected to their own roots.”

“It brings a different dynamic, having an Elder come in, versus just having the teachers around,” said Inga Garcia, a pre-school teacher at CSELC. “Somebody in their senior years, they often have more patience and experience under their belt from raising their own children. They bring a different perspective.”

The benefits go both ways, added Eva. While she has some local relatives, her siblings reside in assisted living homes. “Coming here to have fun with the little kids, it’s a way to get out of the house and be part of the community,” she said.

Individuals who work with the Elder Mentor program receive training through RurAL CAP. They are also encouraged to bring their own interests and hobbies to the classroom. Staff welcome Elders who would like to do activities or teach skills to the children.

At this time, Eva is the first and only Elder Mentor at CSELC. She encourages her fellow seniors to get involved—and not just because it’s fun to cuddle CSELC’s babies and play with the toddlers. It’s also a way to give back.

Eva reads to a toddler. Elders who work with the mentor program at Clare Swan are invited to do share their interests with the children.

“When I was a little girl in the village, we didn’t have running water. No electricity. But I valued my childhood there because there was this one lady I connected to,” Eva recalled. “She invited me and let me watch her cook. She would spend time with me. I thought that was pretty special. So I want to pass that on, too.”

Elders age 55 and older are welcome to apply to be part of the Elder Mentor program. Elders must be available to spend at least five hours per week with students during the school year, must attend training, and are subject to a background check. The program offers an hourly stipend for involved Elders.

Training is provided through the RurAL CAP AmeriCorps Senior Foster Grandparent Program, which places seniors in a variety of pre-K and school settings. Interested Elders can specify that they would like to work with CSELC. Learn more and apply at the RurALCAP website.