I take an open seat amidst a small group of residents sitting around the perimeter of a modest community room. Muriel, one of the PlantPals regulars, dressed in classic dark jeans with a clean white shirt and enjoying a red lollipop, introduces herself. Her comfort and enthusiasm is palpable.
While setting up the space, PlantPals facilitator, Gina Simonelli, notices that a resident is wearing the same green nail polish as she is wearing and joyfully brings this to everyone’s attention. They become instant buddies.
Another resident laughs as she is rolled into the room and begins blowing kisses towards me. She wears fuzzy slippers that are red with white hearts. Her nurse informs me that she only speaks Farsi, but her ear-to-ear smile says “welcome” to all.
We learn that in addition to two PlantPal facilitators and an adult volunteer, six high school student volunteers will also be joining us.
Benny Goodman begins playing on an old stereo per the request of a resident, and a blast of horns and drums invigorates the sleepy room. As if right on cue, the second PlantPals facilitator, Julia Grace, enters the room. She proudly wears a PlantPals shirt that has been cut along the neckline and her head is adorned with a fresh pink flower crown foreshadowing the nature-centered activity to come. She greets each participant, waving or gently shaking hands to welcome and remind them of their importance to the group.
Throughout this informal greeting period, some residents leave and some return. Assisted living communities juggle demanding schedules of medication, physical therapy, showers, and naps. During PlantPals, it is more important that the residents have the choice to come and go as they please, which is rare in their day-to-day routine.
Julia remarks: “In a place where your independence is taken away from you, in an institutional setting, there’s no choice anymore. You have restrictions. [PlantPals] gives a sense of autonomy and free will. One of the residents today was expressing ‘resistance’ in her movement. Even saying no is fuel. They feel their own power. Residents lose power in making everyday choices—the food that they eat, when food is coming, where they’re living, who they’re sitting next to, who they’re living with. Being able to offer choice gives them that human power and vitality.”
When the high school students arrive from Visions Adolescent Treatment Centers, they find open seats among the residents. Some have come to PlantPals before and some are volunteering for the first time. Throughout the afternoon I overhear stories that the teenagers share with residents about difficult times with their families, personal struggles, and pain they’ve experienced. The rawness of the conversation and receptiveness of the participants has been intentionally facilitated by Julia and Gina, initially through prompts or questions. Now they have learned to “take a step back and allow partnerships between the kids and residents to blossom on their own. . . [now] they’re able to be engaged the whole time in the partnership, and it’s really beautiful.”
Intergenerational programing is a keystone of PlantPals that benefits residents and student volunteers alike. Gina explains that the older adults “self-initiate and want to attend. They hear that we’re coming and respond, ‘Oh, I want to join.’ The group leaders from Visions let us know that the sense of community and connectivity is growing among the students, too. Initiating conversations used to be difficult for many of the students, but they now feel comfortable, for example, speaking to strangers when eating publicly at a restaurant.”
Once everyone is comfortably settled in their seats, Julia begins the day’s activity. Circling around to all participants, she explains that they are going to start with movement to warm up, then will introduce a special guest, and will finish their day with a nature-based activity. A popular Sam Cooke song begins playing over the stereo and Julia chooses a resident who is bobbing his head to lead the entire group in movement. We all look around at each other and smile at our chorus of toy bobble heads. Julia calls on another resident who chooses leg pats, and we all join together in synchronized rhythm. Every movement, no matter how small, is a momentous occasion fit for celebration. To complete the warm-up, we all extend our arms and shake them vigorously.
Transitioning to a calmer space, everyone is encouraged to breathe in then out. The room instantly fills with a sense of ease and calmness. “One more time so your neighbor can hear you.” The breath out is audible now, and the room is quiet as everyone breathes together.
Breaking the silence, we are encouraged to raise our arms and then lower our hands to heart’s center. Julia welcomes Brianne who is the special guest from the MyIntent Project: a catalyst for meaningful conversation, positive action, and purposeful lives through shared inspiration. Brianne asks the group: “Who is your hero and what do you admire about them?” After a moment of reflection, we find partners throughout the room. With a little bit of hesitancy, high schoolers connect with residents and introduce themselves. The awkwardness of talking to a stranger eventually dissipates. The room slowly fills with whispered stories about heroes, why they are remembered, and their special traits.
Returning to the group, each participant shares who their hero is and a trait that they admire in their hero. To support movement and self-expression in diverse forms, the facilitators encourage everyone to create a movement for each trait and share it with the group. Julia begins with her Grandma’s patience, which she represents with lifted arms that lower slowly. The group repeats her motion in unison. We hear about a sister’s intelligence and then put our arms straight out while moving shoulders back and forth. We hear about Kurt Cobain and his individuality, a mother who is strong, a father who has integrity, a daughter who is gifted, and siblings that are driven. Brianne is taking note of all the traits mentioned and later asks each of us what color bracelet band we would like for a gift that she is making for us. At the end of the day, she presents each of us with a unique offering of the MyIntent Project, which is an individualized bracelet stamped with our chosen trait.
The conversation during this sharing period strays away at times with stories of loved ones or hardships that families have endured. Self-initiation, even with a tangential story, is what PlantPals is all about. Gina explains: “it’s really about meeting the residents where they’re at so they can self-initiate. It’s looking at them from a place of strength, meeting them at their level of ability. I think that makes them feel good, and it makes them feel wanted and capable. And we see that from week to week; they remember us, they show up.”
For the final phase of the project, we discuss how all our heroes’ traits can be planted within our own actions. Just like the seed of a plant, we can grow strength, resilience, and kindness in our daily lives. At this point, volunteers begin grabbing tables and supplies as they swiftly transform the room. Neon green, plastic tablecloths are adorned with terracotta pots, paint pens, bags of soil, and an array of small succulents. Partners–one high school student and one resident–reconnect to decorate pots and plant a succulent. While options are limited to ten colors, a few plant species, and two pot sizes, the important option to choose is available. According to Gina: “It’s giving back their independence. We offer choice as much as possible. We always try to coach the kids in offering choice. Even if it’s just choice of color, it’s still an opportunity to be empowered.”
At the end of the day, I ask the students what they liked about their PlantPals experience, and they say it was “something different, new” and that “I’ve heard cool stories.” The residents remark that they enjoy decorating, they like when people come to visit, and it makes them happy to see old projects in their rooms. After a few moments of group reflection, Julia asks the group to share any last words. My friend Muriel, with the white shirt and dark jeans, then holds up her freshly potted succulent, and exclaims: “Love!” followed by a beaming smile across her joyful face.
Article by Janelle Ketcher. Read our follow-up interview with the ALMA team here.
To learn more about the MyIntent Project, please visit their website at myintent.org/.