By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Northborough/Southborough – There is much more gained than is lost in the translations when a group of Chinese-speaking senior residents of Northborough meet every other week for a conversation circle with bilingual students of the Community Action Program (CAP) at Algonquin Regional High School (ARHS).
Kelly Burke, director of the Northborough Senior Center, reached out to CAP while seeking assistance for residents who speak only Chinese. This is the second year that CAP students have been visiting the center to help seniors learn new technology. Burke approached the CAP faculty advisor, Eileen Palmer, who found students fluent in Chinese and interested in the idea of a conversation circle.
“It has worked out really well,” Burke said. “The senior citizens enjoy having people who they can converse with and they'se learning from them.”
These seniors can now continue attending an ongoing series of meetings that began in September 2012 in the community room at the Housing Authority with ESL instructor Jenny Otto volunteering. Because she teaches daytime, the meetings were scheduled evenings when the Senior Center's van doesn's run. The meetings moved last November to the center with Margie Hurwitz volunteering as ESL teacher until she became unavailable due to a prior commitment.
Now, the Senior Center's van transports the seniors to ARHS. Burke noticed an immediate bond between the generations at their first meeting last December.
“There's a camaraderie even though so many years span between them,” she said. “One boy told us that he understands how these folks feel because he had come to the United States from China in middle school and didn's know English. Now, of course, he speaks English. He relates with them.”
By the second meeting, the seniors incorporated a newly-acquired skill with iPhones, Palmer noted.
“They took selfies of them with the kids,” she relayed. “Then they asked the kids to email the pictures to their friends and relatives in China. They'se got these buddy friendships now.”
The same six seniors have attended consistently since the beginning. Likewise, the same five students have participated at most meetings at ARHS. Four of the students are paired one-on-one with a senior. The other student helps a married couple.
The CAP students participating are Ray Bu, a sophomore from Southborough; Alex Cui, a sophomore from Southborough; Justin Kim, a senior from Northborough; Henry Liu, a sophomore from Northborough; and Jimmy Sun, a junior from Northborough.
“The senior citizens have let the students know that they feel very isolated in Northborough,” Palmer said. “They have a strong desire to get Chinese literature and movies with interpretation.”
That desire was shared at a meeting with an invited guest, Deborah Hersh, a reference librarian at the Northborough Free Library. By the end of that meeting, she collected each senior's application for a library card.
At another meeting, students helped each senior fill out a File of Life card with emergency contact information.
After the seniors expressed an interest in shopping at Chinatown in Boston, research about public transportation options has been discussed.
“The kids have been able to help them take care of daily issues,” Palmer said.
Both Palmer and Burke acknowledge that they were unsure what to expect when they attempted an afterschool, intergenerational, bilingual conversation circle. But they'se pleased with how it has evolved.
“The dynamics have changed,” Palmer said. “Kelly and I were in charge the first meeting, but now the kids are in charge because they speak the same language. They'se developed relationships. Kelly and I are just flies on the wall.”
Seniors or students interested in joining the conversation circle can contact Eileen Palmer at [email protected].