The origins of Joining Generations began as most teenage stories do… with a gentle shove from a parent.
Katie Bigelow was a high school sophomore in Frisco, Texas when her mother “recommended” her to volunteer at a senior living facility two miles from their home. At the time, it seemed like little more than a very convenient way to log the volunteer hours Katie needed to graduate high school. It became much more than she could have ever imagined.
At first, Katie was unsure about the idea and she felt nervous about volunteering with seniors. She decided to give it a try, however, and remedied the situation by meeting with the facility’s activity director and convincing some of her school friends to join her in volunteering. Whether she realized it at the time or not, the seeds of Joining Generations had been sown.
It wasn’t long before the high schoolers had assimilated to their new environment. They were quick to realize they were not only improving the lives of the residents they served but also their own social/communication skills, ability to recognize social cues, understanding of the power of comfort and the influential nature of direct eye contact.
For Katie, what started as a box to check on a school form had blossomed into a true passion. She looked forward to her time at the senior facility, and never tired of noting how thrilled the residents became when a young person would accompany them around the facility or offer assistance.
The turning point, as Katie recalls, was when she was tapped to help distribute the residents’ mail. She vividly remembers the stark contrast between the excitement displayed by those residents who received mail and the visible disappointment on the faces of those who didn’t. To combat this, Katie formed a pen pal program at her high school with the immediate goal of making sure every resident got mail. But she also had a secondary goal, getting those pen pals involved in face-to-face volunteering at the facility on weekends.
The response from her fellow students were both immediate and overwhelmingly positive. The resultant positive experiences for the residents not only impacted them but also the volunteers who experienced the benefit that comes from selflessly serving others. It was then that the first official chapter of Joining Generations was born.
Katie quickly went to work formulating her plan and vision for the organization. Instead of being bound to the activities that had historically been a part of the residents’ lives, Katie and the rest of the Joining Generations volunteers set out to create a new plan that would improve individual interactions and spark genuine relationships with those they served. Some of the earliest elements of this plan included bringing crafts to make with the residents, designing a personalized gift box for each resident and baking for the facility.
“I feel blessed that I realized my capacity for empathy at a young age,” Katie says. “Although I may not understand everything that senior citizens are going through, I can be there with them and offer support or a caring ear or a friendly smile. Just being there for them is more important than most people realize.”
Yet, while Katie’s initial plan was noble and seemed to be working, she envisioned more. After two years and countless epiphanies, Katie realized Joining Generation’s true potential could not be reached if it didn’t expand. She set out to spread the program throughout other area schools and outreach organizations. Along the way she consulted with and sought advice from individuals who were able to offer guidance and support when it came to creating Joining Generation’s internal structure.
By the time Katie left Texas to attend college in North Carolina, Joining Generations had grown to three chapters. She is currently planning for the establishment of the first chapter in Charlotte.
Though the journey has been long—and yet nowhere near over—Katie knows the destination is worth it. While not every senior living facility or senior citizen has the opportunity to interact with the younger generation, Katie wholeheartedly believes that Joining Generations is on the right track and has the potential to be life-changing for all involved.