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'Bridging the Gap': Students, residents bond at Magnolia House

CONYERS — Almost every week during this past school year, high school students Clare Morganelli and Lindsey Theodore visited J.B. Blankenship at the Magnolia House, an assisted living facility in Conyers.

They asked the 90-year-old resident questions about growing up on a farm. He told them how his mother canned fruits, vegetables and meats because the family had no refrigerator.

They inquired about his service in the Army. He told them he had served in the jungles of New Guinea during World War II and stayed in the Army for 21 years, achieving the rank of master sergeant.

"I developed a very close relationship with the two girls," Blankenship said.

Likewise, Blankenship stressed to the teens the importance of education, God and embracing others despite their differences.

"I think they changed me," said Morganelli, 15, of Blankenship and other Magnolia House residents. "They let me gain a greater appreciation for the things I have and how it's a whole lot easier now. They're really great people and they made a positive impact on us. They went from being elderly people to actual people with lives and stories that go along with those lives."

The young women were among 10 students from the Rockdale County Magnet School for Science and Technology who participated in a community service class. The project: To build relationships with the community of senior citizens at Magnolia House, and ultimately, to record the residents' life stories.

After videotaping hours of interviews with residents, the students created a book, "Bridging the Gap," which contains chapters on WWII, the Great Depression, and the role of women in the mid-20th century, as remembered by the seniors, as well as passages of memories about their childhoods. There are also chapters with biographical information about the students.

The students also produced a DVD of the interviews at the Magnolia House and at various locations throughout Rockdale County.

Magnet School teacher Debra Russell said the project fit well into her desire to provide the students with an off-campus volunteer experience. Each week she and her students would make a weekly trek on foot — or by car in bad weather — from Rockdale County High School to the Magnolia House.

Most students interviewed a senior in groups of two or three. The students and residents also shared parties and activities like Wii bowling.

Russell explained that some students in her class were from other countries so they hadn't seen their grandparents in several years. The Magnolia House residents helped fill that gap.

"It was neat for me to see the connections with their pseudo-grandparents, of totally different backgrounds and different ethnicities," Russell said. "I do believe that these students began to care for the person they interviewed and vice versa."

Magnolia House Marketing and Activities Director Billie Roden said she would like to expand the project and have youth groups from other places, such as churches, continue to record stories.

The residents bonded with the youth, as did the youth with the residents, she said.

"They know each other now and have a feel for one another. The heart is engaged, they have something to talk about, it's no longer awkward," Roden said. "This has such a purpose for the residents. The residents took the students coming personally because they had so much to give them."

Anthonia Adams, a 17-year-old rising senior, invested much of her time talking to J.T. Wallace, who served in WWII and as the sheriff of Rockdale County for two decades. Adams said she admired his perseverance, having been wounded by shrapnel in the war only to come home and become sheriff.

"It showed me that there are many things worth fighting for and that I should be optimistic," said Adams.

Adams said that the residents were like living history books, but she had to be creative in asking the right questions to get the right answers.

"It's really like a treasure hunt when you ask them about their lives," she said.