Ithaca College students connecting with Ithaca-area seniors
Melissa Stutzbach, founder of Ithaca College's Project Generations, watches as Namie Smith paints a picture. (Photo by Rachel Philipson)

When she was in high school, Melissa Stutzbach spent time helping an elderly neighbor with household chores such as taking out the trash and engaging in conversation, allowing the woman to keep living in her own home, as opposed to moving into a nursing home.

As a junior at Ithaca College, Stutzbach has continued that work by volunteering her time with a woman who resides at Cayuga Ridge. That's what led her to create Project Generations, an IC student group started by Stutzbach.

"I thought, 'What if there was a one-on-one friendly visitor program with students from Ithaca College?'" she said.

So, Stutzbach began enlisting the help of her fellow students to do the same thing for seniors in Ithaca and Tompkins County. Project Generations has partnered with the Tompkins County Office for the Aging to match students with seniors in the community that could use a little helping hand or a friendly conversation.

"This will be the first semester with students working with seniors," Stutzbach said. "Last semester was mostly planning, the volunteering will start this semester."

What does volunteering mean for those signing on?

"Basically it will vary depending on seniors' needs," Stutzbach said. "It could be anything from providing mental stimulation or companionship, to light housework, to sitting down and having a cup of tea.

"This will help combat issues seniors face like depression, loneliness and neglect through a friendly visiting program," she added.

In her planning phase, Stutzbach made contact with a number of area non-profit organizations, which led her to the county's Office for the Aging.

"It turns out they have a program established that offers the same services I was looking to offer," Stutzbach said, noting the Office for the Aging's Project CARE. "I talked to the director of the program and asked if they were interested in partnering with the group. They provided a lot of help in putting this together."

Katrina Schickel, an aging services specialist at the Office for the Aging, handles Project CARE and said Stutzbach has made her involvement a breeze.

"Melissa is one dynamite young woman," she said. "She's persistent and thorough and doing a great job with this, making my end very easy from an administrative standpoint."

The county handles interviewing the prospective students and checking their references, as well as providing an orientation.

"Melissa is doing an even more in-depth orientation with them on topics like aging and elder abuse," Schickel said. "She's helping prepare students who might not be familiar with spending time with elder adults, teaching them how to have a conversation and break the ice. She's very thorough."

Schickel said the agency has a long history of working with Ithaca College students, many taking part in the Office for the Aging's friendly visitor program.

"This is bringing it to a whole other level under under Melissa's expertise," she said. "I'm anticipating that this will work out well."

Stutzbach wanted to stress that the Office for the Aging is vetting prospective students, in case any people that are interested in the program are having reservations about taking part.

"They are helping with the pairing process," she said of the Office for the Aging. "We're going through a lot of procedures and the volunteers are well-prepared for visiting seniors.

"This won't be just some random person entering their house," Stutzbach added. "The students' fill out an application, they interview with the project coordinator for Project CARE and we prepare them well to take part."

Shickel said many of the Project CARE participants come from referrals, so she has an idea of the specific client needs, which aids her in making the matches between the volunteer and elderly person.

"I think it would be fair to say there are seniors who are unaware of the program or may be hesitant to take part," she said. "I get referrals from the Department of Social Services, from family members, I get specific referrals of the particular needs.

"Then I wait to match those with a volunteer," Shickel added. "There's a real structure to it."

With 24 students currently signed on from Ithaca College, Stutzbach said her desire is to see more seniors seeking to be matched with a student.

"We're looking for more seniors, we don't have quite enough yet (for all the volunteers signed up)," she said, "and we're looking to establish a kind of stronger waiting list of seniors in Ithaca."

People who -- or if you know someone who -- are over the age of 60, reside in the Ithaca area, are in need of assistance and could benefit from interaction with a college student, may contact the Tompkins County Office for the Aging at (607) 274-5482.

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