Tom Wolfe labeled the baby boomers the "Me" generation and the label has been applied to every generation since. GenZers and Millennials have been accused of pathological self-involvement and narcissism resulting from the "helicopter" parents that raised them. This blog thinks, however, that this continued characterization is unfair and would like to recount a story about kindness and empathy across generations.
The Westward Ho
In 1980, the Westward Ho, a 600-room hotel in Phoenix, Arizona built in 1928 transitioned to a federally subsidized 300-unit housing complex for low-income individuals who are disabled or elderly. After initially occupying this wonderful facility, time passed for the elderly residents and family and friends went about their lives or gradually passed away and the elderly were forgotten and left isolated. For nearly seven years, these heretofore forgotten elderly residents of the Westward Ho apartment complex have benefited from the empathy and kindness of a young generation of interns at Arizona State University (ASU). In 2015, they created a 15,000-ft space called the Community Collaborative within the subsidized housing complex.
The Community Collaborative
The collaborative is run by the Center for Applied Behavioral Health Policy, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, College of Health Solutions, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the ASU School of Social Work and is staffed largely by student interns from the colleges. Within the student-run center, interns provide a variety of free services that address the psychosocial and preventive health needs of residents. The collaborative works to provide the residents with therapy and activities to occupy their time during the day. Student interns are in charge of running group sessions or doing therapy with the residents, providing them real-world experience in their majors.
"One important thing that I've learned is that this population is very ignored," said Adrine Rodriguez, an intern at the Community Collaborative and graduate student studying social work. "Many of the residents' only support system is the Community Collaborative."
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, the elderly at the Westward Ho were again isolated by COVID restrictions that prevented them from assembling in the collaborative or the young students from attending to their needs. However, the ASU interns would not be dissuaded. They immediately held discussions focusing on eradicating the COVID isolation and harnessing technology for social good.
- One of the students’ first efforts was creating a “help line” phone service for residents. "This was a number residents could call to ask for anything from how to work their cell phone to case management questions,” said Taylor Elliot, a first year MSW student at ASU.
- Students came up with “pen pal” and “phone pal” programs in which residents could choose to write or call an intern. Unlike the more formal check-ins with the help line, these platforms gave residents a chance to simply talk about their day-to-day lives. For some, this was much needed after months of isolation. "I would call them, and I could hear it in their voice. Residents’ whole demeanor would change 180 degrees. It was just letting them know that they weren’t forgotten,” another MSW student shared.
- There was another glaring problem: food insecurity. “After coming back from summer break, we heard from residents how hard it was over the summer to keep food in their homes,” Elliot said. “We weren’t there over the summer, and the food pantry wasn’t available. They do have food stamp programs and the Salvation Army down the road, but many don’t drive. We had to get permission to come in, because the university didn’t want any students to come in after Thanksgiving, rightfully so, with people traveling,” said Elliot, who noted that volunteers went in multiple times a week so residents would continue to have access. “When we opened that first day, the residents were all saying, ‘We’ve missed you. We’re so happy,’” Elliot said.
- After discussions and planning with supervisors during the fall semester, over the winter break the interns decided to plan for programs to be held outdoors with social distancing and mask use. Fortunately, Westward Ho is located near a park and the interns decided to utilize the space to first invite residents out for an informal meet-up. “Whoever wanted to come chit-chat in the park could. There was no agenda, there were no rules,” Elliot said.
One intern put it like this; "They're helping me to be a better social worker and preparing me for my success," he said. "They're definitely helping me as much as I'm helping them."
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