Grand Friends: Is our Society Ready to Rethink Family?

By Diana Ganger, MSW, and Sharon Goldman, JD

Cheers of glee can be heard down the hallway of Moriah Early Childhood Center this Friday morning, but this time it has nothing to do with the rich Shabbat celebrations. Grandpa Larry is back in Chicago from his snow bird trip to Arizona, and the entire community couldn’t be happier to have him back.

How did he become such a crucial figure in the community? Over 25 years ago, Grandpa Larry had his own grandchildren at the early childhood center, and began volunteering in their classrooms on a weekly basis as part of the school’s ECE Grand Friends program. After his own grandchildren graduated, he continued to adopt and be adopted by a classroom on a yearly basis, becoming a grand friend figure for hundreds of children, parents, and staff members. Many more grand friends (some that had grandchildren in the program and others that didn’t) began a similar journey at Moriah ECC.

The ECE Grandfriends model invites elders (who may be grandparents or not) into early childhood classrooms every week. They are paired with classrooms and remain a consistent presence throughout the year, making meaningful relationships with the children, families and staff.

This ECE Grand Friends model was replicated at the Palm Beach JCC in the last couple of years, with similarly exciting communal expansion.

IDEAL18 (Intentional Deep Experiences Across Life Cycles) noticed that many of the children nowadays don’t have involved grandparents living in close proximity.

We noticed that the concept of family in Jewish education often includes only parents and siblings (with the occasional invitation to grandparents, usually when donations are requested).

We noticed that stereotypes and ageism at both ends of the life cycle exist.

We want to expand the concept of family to include grandparents as partners in education, in a society that is grouping people more and more by age.

Having a grand friend in the classroom invites children to partake in perspective taking, empathy, story telling, and additional adult 1-on-1 presence and connection. The elders bring their undivided presence to the classroom that is special in an era of tweets and texts. The children and teachers alike are thrilled to have the grand friends in the room.

In turn, the grand friends feel invited, valued, and part of the fabric of the school. Grand friends who have their own grandchildren become more empowered grandparents as they observe skilled teachers at work.

These deep, giving relationships keep us all healthier and happier.

Having witnessed the success of this grand friend model first-hand, the questions became: How can we offer this enriching program across the country? As people live healthier, longer lives, how can we expand on the idea of “family?”

IDEAL18 seeks to sew the seeds of meaningful intergenerational relationships. We support schools and individual grand friends as they embark on this journey, with multiple tools such as protocols that have been developed and tested. These tools help create a platform for successful engagement. You can find some of these tools at www.ideal18.org.

Diana Ganger is a co-founder and Director of IDEAL18, an intergenerational initiative. She also works as a coach/consultant in Organizational and Educational settings. A long-time Jewish educator, she was a fellow of the Wexner Heritage Foundation and a recipient of the 2008 Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Sharon Goldman is the Director of Communications of IDEAL18, Assistant Director and Coordinator of Documentation and Research of Moriah Early Childhood Center, and Co-Founder and Educational Director of Within the Image. Sharon was a Dorot Fellow in Israel, and is an alumnus of Neve Yerushalayim Seminary. Sharon sees herself as an advocate for the competencies of children, and enjoys mothering three of them.