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Odyssey Angels Honored for Teaching Technology to Seniors

Gloria Hamacher got out her new computer tablet and asked eighth-graders Catherine Witte and Ashley Vriesenga for a little help. “Do you know how to put an app on? I want Pandora,” Hamacher asked.

“Yes, we can do that!” Catherine said, helping Hamacher load the music-streaming service. It was another small victory for the Rockford retiree’s newfound love of computers.

Thanks to Catherine and other Rockford students, she has located long-lost relatives through Facebook.

“It’s wonderful,” said Hamacher, 67. “I got connected with people I haven’t talked to in 50 years.  I never touched a computer before I got that, and I have really been going to town.”Carolyn Lafferty, left, gets technology pointers from Ashley Vriesenga

She is one of 18 residents at Richter Place Apartments who have discovered the digital delights of technology through a year-long project by an equal number of Rockford students. Ranging from ages 8 to 15, they took on the service project as Odyssey Angels, a community outreach of the Odyssey of the Mind creative problem-solving program.

Besides winning them new senior friends, their “Connect and Engage” project was selected to be showcased at the Odyssey of the Mind World Finals in Ames, Iowa. Five team members will be presented with an award at the opening ceremonies May 28. They also will conduct a hands-on activity at the four-day finals, which will include a competitive team from Rockford.

“This project is so simple but also thoughtful and creative that I’m sure it can spread throughout many communities,” wrote Cheryl Micklus, director of the Odyssey Angels program.

Helping Retirees Stay Connected

That the Rockford Angels were so honored in their first year amazed their organizers.

“To be the one on the planet that gets highlighted, I’m a little flabbergasted,” said Renne’ Wyman, co-coach along with Susan Witte. “We’re just 18 girls from Rockford. I still can’t believe it.”

Shirley Burtt, 78, plays the game “Candy Crush” with Hallie McClellandThe project emerged from discussions among Rockford students at an Odyssey camp last summer, as they looked for a project that would meet a community need beyond their competitions. Remarking on how hungry the elderly can be for conversation, they explored how to help them connect with others in assisted living. Computer technology seemed perfect.

After meeting with a gerontologist and designing a survey to measure results, they presented the idea to Richter Place residents who responded eagerly. Students met with them twice a month, doing crafts, making music and reciting poems along with teaching technology. Students’ personal iPods and phones were too small for the seniors to see easily, so they raised $1,300 to buy tablets for them.

Since seniors received the tablets earlier this spring, the project has become “driven by the seniors and what their needs and wants are,” Wyman said.

On a recent evening, East Rockford Middle School student Megan Witte showed Bud Graverson how to pull up YouTube videos of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, one of his favorite bands. He said he thought computers were a waste of time until now.

“Every time I turn it on I learn something,” said Graverson, 78. “I’ve got to be busy all the time, and this really fills that little gap.”Pat Parmeter shares a giggling moment with her great granddaughter, Gynevieve McColgan

Doris Jewell, 81, had a ball playing a video game with East Rockford student Claire Danko.  “All my grandkids got one,” Jewell said of her tablet. “They’re surprised I’m even doing this.”

Catherine Witte said she enjoys hearing the residents talk about how things were when they were growing up, adding, “It’s so much fun to learn with them.”

“They’ve taught us so much,” Gloria Hamacher said. “We’re going to miss them.”


Odyssey Angels program

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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