Young volunteers are making some magic at the JF&CS Memory Café! The café just opened on March 7th—the second in Massachusetts so far—and it’s off to a strong start, in part, because of some enthusiastic student volunteers from Brandeis University (volunteers attending their May 2nd café are pictured above).

Beth Soltzberg, who spearheaded development of the café at the Waltham Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JF&CS), got the idea to create an intergenerational café program from Upper Valley Memory Café at Dartmouth in New Hampshire, which has volunteers from a sorority on campus. She believes that educating young volunteers on how to embrace people living with memory loss is a valuable outcome of this kind of collaboration. “An important goal of the memory café is to break down walls between people with dementia and others in our community,” she says.

When Beth first reached out to the Brandeis Student Volunteer Organization, she was happy to find a very organized and enthusiastic group of students, which already had a subgroup specifically dedicated to doing work with elders in the Waltham community.

Nonetheless, the students were a little nervous initially. They wanted to know—how do I relate to the people at the memory café? Beth developed a schedule to help them feel comfortable about where they should be and what they should be doing at different points during their first café. She encouraged them to just get out there and give it a try, and when they did, they found that they really enjoyed the group. The feedback from the leader of the student volunteers is that the experience has been “magical.” And now, the student volunteer organization has taken on the responsibility for screening, training and scheduling volunteers, which has been a real boon for this new café.

The café is housed at the JF&CS office building in Waltham, which is about 10 miles outside of Boston. They have a small start-up grant but will be looking for additional funding in the fall. The café already has 15 regular attendees—mostly ‘early adopter’ types according to Beth—who have open minds about trying something new.

Their community seems to want something programmatic for the café meet-ups. One café attendee told Beth that having an invited guest presentation helps motivate her spouse to get out of the house. Beth has invited community artists to do interactive projects, and they also have singing, dancing, and of course, lots of great socializing and refreshments. She is planning to have more artists, musicians, and poetry presentations in the future.

Next fall, the students at Brandeis have offered to take on some of these programming responsibilities as well, possibly bringing in students and faculty who want to visit and share their knowledge and passions on various topics.

Collaborating with a university is not a common model for memory cafés yet, but it is certainly worth considering if such an opportunity exists in your community. Students and faculty can clearly be a resource for the café, and, in turn, the café can be a great learning opportunity for these volunteers.

Do you have students volunteering at your café? We would love to hear more about intergenerational memory café programs!

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