Journaling program links young and old, and sisters


cchsstudentreading-webKay Kelly, a resident at St. Mary’s Catholic Home, listens as Camden Catholic senior Molly McConnell of Pennsauken reads from the journal she wrote of Kelly’s memories of her life. The “Journaling Memories & So Much More” is a new program for  Camden Catholic English students.

CHERRY HILL – The “Journaling Memories & So Much More” program that Camden Catholic High School students are participating in is about linking youth with the elderly, the present with the past, and sister with sister.

For the past school year, English teacher Donna Maccherone has been working side by side with her sister Mary Kate Kennedy, a certified senior advisor and aging specialist, on a project that sees students reaching out to residents of St. Mary’s Catholic Home in Cherry Hill. Residents have been telling their life stories to the students, who in turn write keepsake journals for the residents to share and treasure.

“I was looking for a meaningful writing project for my students when my sister came to me with her program, one of several she offers to the senior population. The idea is writing the memoirs of people who have lived through several generations and have seen so much in their lives,” said Maccherone. 

“We wanted to connect two very special populations, those seniors at St. Mary’s and our young people, two groups of people who often do not interact,” said Kennedy. “This program has provided the opportunity for these elders’ stories to be told, and to engage our youth in understanding what it meant to grow up so long ago.”

Once the cooperative effort was begun, Kennedy, whose company, 1 Link 4 Senior Care, helps families find solutions when they are faced with loved ones who can no longer care for themselves, approached St. Mary’s about the idea. 

St. Mary’s enthusiastically accepted the proposal. Since then, more and more residents have requested to be involved. So far, Camden Catholic students have met with residents from both the nursing home and the assisted living communities within St. Mary’s.

Camden Catholic’s Maccherone sees a beautiful interaction between the teenagers and elderly when they meet. 

“I hear lots of laughter and lengthy conversations when the students get together with the residents. And when the students present the journals, the conversations continue,” she noted. 

“It’s been good for both sides, especially those who tend to be shy,” she continued. “Our students are coached on how to pose the questions, and for those who are visiting for the first time, they are coached by fellow students who have already done interviews.”

Each student participant agrees to a number of actions before getting involved with the program. For instance, they are discouraged from using slang phrases to be better understood and are prepared to encounter deep emotions as the elders recount their stories. Each story is considered the elder’s “personal property” and will not be shared outside the confines of the Camden Catholic faculty advisor or the 1 Link 4 Senior Care representatives.

Maccherone gives the students a suggested list of questions to prompt conversation and memories, such as the following:

— Do you have a nickname?

— Where were you born? Did you grow up in that town?

— Do you have special memories about your Mom and Dad?

— Did you have special traditions or customs?

— What was your favorite food growing up? When did you learn to drive?

— Did you go on special vacations or adventures?

— What events made you the happiest?

The journals —  and all of the time and effort spent preparing them — can be applied toward the time Camden Catholic requires each student to devote to Community Service activities. In addition, students may decide to use some of their experiences when they are asked to write college essays (keeping each resident’s stories confidential).

Aging specialist Kennedy cannot praise the program enough. “It’s a beautiful program,” she said. “When we were at St. Mary’s the other day, one person asked how we managed to get the students and residents to smile so much. Heartfelt, genuine, authentic —  those are what come to mind when I think of this program.”

Maccherone agreed. “The students have been really positive and have enjoyed it much more than I thought. I often hear ‘Oh, I just liked my lady so much!’”