This past month I had the pleasure of watching our first Spanish Sweet Readers program come to life. 7th and 8th graders from De La Salle Academy in Manhattan made almost immediate connections with older adults at the Tejano Center in Houston. The creation of these bridged communities – already connecting like old friends, was the collaborative work of many people in both communities. Teachers, administrators, aides, students, older adults, friends and colleagues came together in beautiful form.
This process exemplified the best in so many people, the importance of multigenerational engagement and the power of youth to inspire us all.
Over the next few weeks I will be interviewing different constituents to share their perspectives and impact. I’ve decided to start with one of the Sweet Readers, Layla. Layla is an 8th grader whose one heritage bridges two cultures, Italian and Dominican. Here is what Layla had to say:
KY: As a first time Sweet Reader do you feel empowered? If so, why?
LP: Yes, I do feel empowered! When you see all of the smiling faces looking at you it feels special and I know I am making a difference.
KY: Does it matter to you that the program was in Spanish? If so, why and how has that been fruitful for you?
LP: Yes. I’m a multilingual person, and language is dear to my heart. I speak three and a half languages – English, Spanish, Italian and even some Arabic, because I lived in Dubai for 7 years.
My family is very close and grandparents are a big part of that. When I told my family I was a part of this, they were so proud of me! One of my grandmothers is two floors down and my other grandparents are in Italy. My Dad was born in Naples. My Mom is Dominican.
I’m a bridged community, so being able to connect with these adults feels natural in some ways to me and I want to do more of it!
I’ve inspired my grandmothers to speak their languages together – Italian and Spanish!
At the same time, sometimes I feel a little embarrassed or uncomfortable because even within the Spanish community, my Spanish is more Dominican and sometimes I’m afraid I won’t be understood by people speaking other dialects. Working with Maria at Tejano Center changed that for me and gave me more confidence and pride because she accepted me and understood me and that made me feel more comfortable. With Sweet Readers I learned that it’s not about the little differences, it’s connecting with the person.
That you are doing Sweet Readers in Spanish gives me hope that one day Sweet Readers can be in many different languages. I want to be a part of that!
KY: What have you gained so far from this experience?
LP: A true relationship with older adults. It’s not every day that you get to hang out with older adults. I also gain more confidence in my culture and my Spanish. Since they all understand me in Spanish, it makes me feel more confident. They enjoy listening to me and I enjoy listening to them..
Maria, for example, has 8 children, 16 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren! I’m an only child. The closest I have to a sibling is my cousin who is seven in italy. Just thinking of a big family excites me.
It’s a unique program. If I could do it I would do it three times a week or more – I would love it!
KY: Are there other reasons why this matters to you?
LP: I’m able to do the program with my friend [a De La Salle classmate], who is like a sister to me, as partners. When we take turns, we learn more about each other. We were talking about beach hats and the chairs and swimsuits that women wear at the beach – sharing childhood stories with our adult partner.
Seeing the smiles on all of the adult’s faces and the way they thank me and the other Sweet Readers for coming, I know I am impacting their day. Sharing so much of their lives, even the little silly stories, like I could talk about broccoli or tomatoes – a certain intimacy – is something I will always remember.
For me, this matters because to grow communications skills and friendship, to extend the language and culture is very important.
KY: What advice would you like to give to others?
LP: Always find something to do with your community and expand out of your comfort zone. At the start of Sweet Readers, I was a little nervous and then I overcame it and felt more confident.
Find something special in every culture to bring into your life. For me, I have 12 grapes on New Years – It’s a Spanish tradition! And I also wear red underwear on New Years for good luck – it’s an Italian tradition!
Since I can tell the joy that older adults, especially with Alzheimer’s, feel when they get to be with young people, I think we should make Sweet Readers accessible to as many people as possible and I want to help!