Instead of merely viewing older people as random faces in the crowd who are in the autumns or winters of their lives, Chase Bergeron now knows that many of the elders in his midst have life stories that are downright riveting.
For example, after interviewing Pansy Bradshaw, a member of Catholic Charities’ Foster Grandparents program, Chase discovered that New Orleans- born Bradshaw spent 25 years in California working as a policewoman and a minister at one of the largest Pentecostal churches in America.
In 1995, Bradshaw journeyed to South Africa to do radio interviews on her Christian faith.
“She wasn’t used to eating giraffe and kudu,” smiled Chase, a Holy Cross sixth grader who delved into Bradshaw’s South African adventure and other life experiences for his class’ “Story Corps” oral history project. “She told me her prayers were answered when she saw a KFC. She wanted to kiss the building!” Chase said.
In all, 41 seniors were paired with more than 50 Holy Cross sixth graders for the month-long oral history project. The endeavor, funded by a service-learning grant procured by Catholic Charities from the Joe and Dorothy Dorsett Brown Foundation, had the Holy Cross sixth graders meeting with their elders three times: twice to collect information and enjoy lunch together; and a third time – to confirm the accuracy of their biographical essays. The interviews took place at two locations: at Catholic Charities’ Howard Avenue headquarters; and at Holy Cross, so students could show their new friends around their Paris Avenue campus.
The sixth graders presented their senior buddies with copies of their final written reports at a Dec. 13 ceremony at Holy Cross.
“I learned that everyone is important and everyone should be heard – no one should be cast out,” said Chase, noting that his subject, Bradshaw, was a published author who had written the story of her survival from domestic abuse. Chase was overwhelmed by his subject’s energy – both now and as a child.
“Some kids nowadays just get on their computers and play games, but (Bradshaw and her peers) used to do way more stuff with their time,” Chase said.
“Yes, we had to be more creative when we were growing up,” Bradshaw agreed, recalling her childhood in the Carrollton and Algiers neighborhoods making dolls out of Coke bottles, horsehair and clothespins, and building “skatemobiles” – a type of a scooter – out of skates and wood.
During his oral history interviews, Jaden Banks discovered that LaPlace native Brenda Bazile hailed from a family of 12 children and was a former basketball player, a choir member at Our Lady Star of the Sea and a retired telemarketer who once worked with his own grandmother.
“(Bazile) liked to go to parties and dance, but her mom was strict with her about school,” said Jaden, noting that Bazile’s life was not without its painful times. Bazile told the sixth grader about her earlier years in which African Americans could not eat at the same restaurants or use the same restrooms as their white counterparts.
“Now I know that (older people) did more than go shopping,” Jaden said. “Ms. Brenda would go to restaurants and arcades and play Pac Man with a joystick.”
Orville Duggan, Catholic Charities’ CAO, commended the Holy Cross students for boldly plunging into the life stories of strangers.
“You didn’t get (the information) from the Internet, a book or an opinion column. It was not texted to you, nor was it an online tweet,” Duggan said. “You got it person to person. You had to listen, ask more questions and write it down. These two skills are in great need today: listening and writing.”
Connie Allerton, a Holy Cross English teacher and the school’s sixth grade coordinator, thanked the foster grandparents for the “service” they had provided both her and her students.
“Education is more than what you learn in books,” Allerton said. “This project is a perfect example of that.”
The Holy Cross sixth graders will continue their oral history project this spring by conducting interviews with the senior guests of Catholic Charities-affiliated PACE of Greater New Orleans (Program of All-inclusive Care of the Elderly).
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