East Lansing seniors and special needs students create art

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By Chloe Kiple
Entirely East Lansing

EAST LANSING—Students squish red clay between their palms as they carefully mold small angel figurines. Smiling faces, laughter and conversation fill the room. On March 21, the joy was palpable in the art studio of the Prime Time senior center, making fertile grounds for creative expression during the intergenerational art program. 

The senior center pairs special needs students with seniors. Over six weeks, the duo works together to create art projects, like glass night-lights, masks and mosaic picture frames.  

“We have some really gifted artists among the seniors and the students,” said program planner Lisa Richey. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Before the first session, special education teacher Amanda Moran tells the senior volunteers about each student and their unique personalities. This helps the volunteers pick their partner.

“People had the chance to say … ‘I’d really enjoy working with that student’ or ‘That sounds like a good fit for me,’” said Richey.

The art course is more than just fun for the students in the program. Moran said it builds real-world skill-sets.  

“It’s really built up their communication skills and linked them with friendships,” said Moran.

The class helps many participants improve their social and communication skills. One student, David, has autism and was generally a quiet person before he started participating in the program.

“His communication has really opened up,” said Moran. “Before, he wouldn’t be one to talk.”

Now, David goes out of his way to visit his new friends that he has made in the volunteers and program directors. He frequently visits the senior center office to stop in and say hello.

But the students aren’t the only ones benefitting from the interaction and camaraderie. Over the course of the program, the seniors and the students form bonds.

“What I love about this is that you get a partner, but then in the first week, everybody is friends,” said volunteer Linda Salosf. “The young adults like this thing of, like, a community.”

The leader of the March 21 class, Leo Christel, enjoys being a mentor to the young participants.

“We delight in sharing our knowledge and experience with these young people,” said program leader Leo Christel.

The art program was formed originally from grant money three years ago. The volunteers and participants look forward to the future. For many, the activity has become a kind of safe haven.

“With a lot of hatred going on in this country, this is so sweet,” said Salosf. “We don’t have to worry about politics!”

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