Monday, January 26, 2015

Carlisle, Massachusetts: A Small Town for All Ages - 2015 Best Intergenerational Communities

Halloween Parade
It wasn't Carlisle’s cranberry bog, state park or its 1,000 acres of conservation land that attracted long-time resident Thomas Dunkers to the small suburb 35 years ago.

It was the Strawberry Festival in the court yard of the Unitarian Church. That day, watching residents of all generations laughing together as they waited on their strawberry shortcake ice creams, Dunkers said the sight was picturesque. 

“It reminded me of a Norman Rockwell painting,” the 81-year-old said. “I fell in love with Carlisle.”

That community spirit goes back to the first Old Home Day in 1912. Today, the annual event brings together its 5,400-plus neighbors for intergenerational road races, parade and awards ceremony for its young scholars, older conservationists and outstanding citizens.

Patti Russo, a Board member with the Carlisle Council on Aging, recalls the free pancake breakfast at the Congregational Church – the lines of children, teens, parents and grandparents waiting in the church parking lot as they take in the sweet aromas of pancakes. 

Strawberry Festival Workers
“Between the pancake breakfast and the awards ceremony,” Russo explained, “residents can deliver baked good for the pie and cake contest.” All cakes are given out as prizes at the legendary cake walk.

The memories are enough to make Carlotte Copp, a college student living in Portland, Oregon, homesick for Carlisle.

“Carlisle constantly has events where generations mix, and that is what makes it great,” she recalled. She misses “the connectedness of Carlisle and the at-home feeling.” 

The community’s connectedness is ensured by several organizations including the Council on Aging and the Intergenerational Task Force. 

The Council on Aging programs budget line item helps to support intergenerational activities. Other sources included Carlisle and State Cultural Council Grants, the Friends of the Carlisle Council on Aging, the Gleason Public Library and the Concord-Carlisle Community Chest.

Another factor that makes Carlisle an age-advantaged community is the fact that the town’s older adult housing facility is sandwiched between the elementary school and the Gleason Public Library. 

Old Home Day Festival
“We think of ourselves as somewhat of a throwback to an earlier, agrarian time,” explains Kerry Kissinger, a Board member with the Friends of Carlisle Council.

The “agrarian time” Kissinger conjures up is one of a town without stoplight and neighbors passing the time at the general store.

“The library is the community center and senior citizens are the crossing guards after school,” he recalled. “We love our little town and try very hard to keep it safe and inclusive while still welcoming new and diverse residents.”

While Carlisle has always had what they call “informal” intergenerational programs – Strawberry Festival or Old Home Day – such events don’t always promote direct engagement between older adults and young people.

“Once people in town experienced the beauty and power of such formal intergenerational interactions, they wanted more,” recalled Patti Russo, with the Carlisle Council on Aging. “That’s when we thought of creating new programs and modifying existing one to make them intergenerational.”

Over the past 10 years, Carlisle established more programs – such as the Community Chorus and Intergenerational Poetry Group – designed specifically to get generations together. 

Each year, Carlisle’s 6th graders serve pasta to nearly 
1,000 Carlisle residents ranging in age from 2 to 102.
Even still, when Carlisle heard about the Best Communities Awards in 2013, they considered applying, but decided they needed more time.

“The extra year gave us time to assemble an intergenerational task force and thoroughly research what was happening on the intergenerational front in Carlisle,” explained Russo, a member of the Carlisle Intergenerational Task Force. 

“We have a significant number of successful intergenerational programs already, but I believe there is room for more.”

On the morning of Dec. 20, she was on her way out the door when she got the news that Carlisle is a 2015 Best Intergenerational Communities Award-winner. 

Russo shared the news with her family, the intergenerational task force and other town officials. The Jan. 9 issue of the Carlisle Mosquito ran a front-page story on the award.

“I was thrilled,” Russo recalled, “the extra adrenaline…made it difficult to sleep for a couple of nights!”

Intergenerational Preschool Poetry program
She hopes the 2015 Best Intergenerational Communities Award will get town partners fired up about intergenerational work and build off that momentum for more programs.

Organizations like the Savoyard Light Opera Company and the Carlisle Community Chorus put 17-year-old Reilly in touch with older adults.

“Each week,” she explained, “I would look forward to the conversations I would have with my fellow choir members and what I would learn from them, both in life and in singing.”

Those interactions make Thomas Dunkers, the 81-year-old resident, happy he made Carlisle his home 35 years ago.

“I have strong feelings about the importance of having an intergenerational community,” he said. “Having intergenerational activities generates understanding and enriches everyone.”

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