St. Odilia Kindergartners get life lessons from elders

SHOREVIEW, Minn. -- "Eighth grade buddies, I would like you to write the Bible verse that's up on the Smart Board," said kindergarten teacher Shelly Havran.

Once a week the older students fill Havran's room at St. Odilia School in Shoreview, as well as Julie Ruzynski's classroom across the hall. "Every Thursday we come down and do art projects for them," explained eighth grader Alex Halseth.

One recent project is more about the art of life.

"When the hospice center opened three years ago on our campus, we wanted to have a connection with them," Havran said. She called Saint Therese and asked what her kindergartners could do to help their new neighbors.

Nurse Manager Jolene Baker was quick with an answer. "A lot of people come straight from the hospital, or have nothing with them."

That's why for the past two years, St. Odilia's kindergartners and eighth graders have put together gift bags for Saint Therese's residents.

Kindergartner Madeline Herold fills her bag. "Chap stick, tooth brush, toothpaste," she said, ticking off the contents.

Students also include rosaries, and handmade cards.

On its face, the project teaches students how to be of service.

"We need them to have something tangible to do so they understand how to help someone else," said Havran.

But she and fellow teacher Ruzynski wanted a deeper connection between their students and the residents of Saint Therese.

"They (the residents) watch them everyday from the window," said Ruzynski, who noticed children playing on the playground seemed to bring enjoyment to their elders who are living just a couple hundred yards away.

The teachers arranged for their students to tour the hospice, and meet some of the residents. They hand deliver their gift bags to residents well enough to visit with them, like Richard Bonine, a retired teacher and computer programmer.

"This is just full of goodies," said Bonine as he peaked inside the bag.

Dozens of kindergartners sat before him on the floor, listening with rapt attention as Bonine answered questions about his life.

"They're not afraid," Baker said. "They'll ask anything that comes into their heads."

That includes questions about death and dying. Ruzynski said a recent hospice visit prompted her students to share their thoughts about grandparents and great-grandparents who are no longer living.

Because St. Odilia is a Catholic school, the hospice visits also bring up the subject of faith.

"We toured it last year right before we took over the bags," said Havran, "And there's a chapel in the basement. A couple of kids came over and said, 'Mrs. Havran, I'm sure I saw God in there.'"

For residents of Saint Therese, it could be more like pint-sized angels, with wide-eyes and eager minds, ready to receive as well as give.

"When you have a whole room full of little kids, wide-eyed and listening to you, you feel witnessed," said Baker. "Validated. Yeah, your life matters."


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