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Cornell legacy project breaks down barriers between generations

LOCKPORT – Lessons handed down through generations on how to live happy and successful lives were the focus of a recent intergenerational research program conducted by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County.

The program linked 15 Lockport High School students, eager to interview 14 cooperative elder members of the community, who, in turn, taught life lessons to a new generation.

The group had to narrow its choices to 10 pieces of advice, and they included such nuggets as “Be optimistic” and “Live for today.”

“Don’t worry about the past, you don’t live there,” said one of the elderly contributors.

The local office was one of only four Cooperative Extension offices throughout the state selected to participate in the program this year, according to Kaitlyn Smith, a resource educator with Cooperative Extension Niagara, who coordinated the effort with Kathy Bowers, a local 4-H community educator.

“We had been wanting to do something intergenerational, but hadn’t had the opportunity until now,” Smith said. “Now that we’ve gotten this off the ground, we hope to continue it in the future.”

The research project, called “Building a Community Legacy Together,” was inspired by a Cornell Legacy Project, described in the book “Thirty Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans,” by gerontologist Karl Pillemer.

Following their own project training, Smith and Bowers took their training components to Lockport High, where 15 students had been selected to participate.

The students were taught key interviewing tips, such as how to continue a conversation and how to ask open-ended questions. They were exposed to social service methods and learned how to interpret survey information. The students worked together to develop their interview questions and interviewed the elders gathered at the Dale Association to learn general advice about living.

Victoria Haak, who just finished her junior year, said she interviewed local elder “Judy.”

“Judy was wonderful, she loved the whole idea,” Haak said. “She was married 50-plus years, raised two sons and now has grandchildren. She talked about the give-and-take in marriage and in raising children. She said patience is very important in life … and everything she said, I could relate to things in my own life.”

Smith said the students were “a really good group of kids.”

She added that the elders were handpicked by the Dale Association and were “super willing to do this. Some even brought their friends with them to see what they were doing.”

“The students used digital recorders so they didn’t have to write down notes and could focus on what the elders were saying – that was the whole goal,” Smith added.

“The students then listened to the recordings and transcribed them and took lessons from them.”

The group presented its findings at the Dale Association on May 28.

Another student involved in the project, Delaney Fragale, said, “I am thankful for this experience because Nancy (her elder interviewee) taught me that to live a good life, you have to make choices that make you happy because nothing is worse than regret.”

And fellow Lockport student Lauren Isherwood said, “Our society has stereotypes that teens are often reckless and carefree, and that the elderly are stuck in their ways. Yet, through this experience, we were able to learn from one another and break down this barrier. We were able to teach the other generation that these stereotypes are incorrect.”