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Baking a difference: EHS kids evoke sweet holiday memories for Elk Run residents

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By Stephen Knapp

The quiet activity room at Evergreen’s Elk Run assisted-living community has looked like Christmas for weeks now. Strings of colored lights and long swags of plastic spruce lend the tidy space a festive air, and speak quietly to Elk Run’s aged tenants of the joyous holiday bustle going on outside their quiet walls.

On Saturday afternoon, a handful of merrymakers from Evergreen High School brought the sounds of Christmas to Elk Run, along with its sweetly remembered smells and all of its joyous bustle. For a few hours, Christmas past and Christmas present came together in the suddenly active activity room and, between them, had a jolly good time. So who were these youthful rabble-rousers and why were they stirring up noisy yuletide cheer in an otherwise tranquil precinct?

“We’re Evergreen High School’s Leaders Challenge team,” explained Mandy Flesche, wearing the T-shirt to prove it. “We all decided that this would be our December challenge, and it’s turning out great.”

Mandy was referring to a Colorado program that challenges high school juniors to develop leadership skills by getting up close and personal with the many worlds that lie outside their own institutional walls.

“We had a media day in October, and last month we met with about 500 business people,” said Jacob Solomon, handing out candy canes like they were, uh, candy. “We made business cards and talked with professionals. It was very educational, but this is more fun.”

Around the activity room’s circular table sat seven quiet ladies, none of them under 80. A few old gents poked their noses in the room, decided there was a hen-party in progress and disappeared in a cloud of sardonic quips.

“Last year’s team worked with little kids, so this year we thought we’d go to the other end of the spectrum,” added Delaney Hunt, wrestling with an oversized sheet of black construction paper. “It’s interesting to wonder what Christmas was like when they were our age, and what they think about us.”

When the women around the table were Delaney’s age, Benny Goodman topped the charts, hip-hop was something rabbits did, and Norman Rockwell painted pop art, not nostalgia. And, back then, most folks got exactly as much Christmas as they were willing to make themselves, which was exactly what the kids had in mind. After covering the table with construction paper, the EHS party directors produced a rainbow of pens filled with bright, sparkly ink.

“You can draw whatever you want, and we’ll cut it out and hang it on your door,” Mandy announced. “Maybe something Christmas-y?”

It was wonderful to watch. The ladies began tentatively: a few stars, a simple tree, a stick-house. The teens buzzed around the table, a helpful tornado of energy and purpose, offering praise, suggestions and unfailingly positive critiques. The ladies seemed amused by all the attention but clearly appreciated its motivation. Stick-houses turned into picturesque cottages with gingerbread shutters and snowmen in their yards, simple trees sprouted ornaments from every branch, and stars became full-blown angelic hosts. Ribbons appeared from somewhere, and two-dimensional pictures were suddenly elaborate collages. The room’s median age dropped at least 50 years.

“You call that a snowman?” laughed Phyllis Duncan, 83, teasing an artist across the table. “He hasn’t got any buttons!”

“That house needs a dog that barks all night,” chided another. “I had a neighbor like that, once.”

Once the creative deficiencies had been corrected, the Challenge crew hung the finished works on the wall inside glittering garland frames. With the room now properly cheerful, it was time for the main event.

“We’re going to make sugar cookies,” announced Nicole Gruber, to general and genuine approval. “We have lots of dough and lots of frosting, so make as many as you want.”

“Do we have to eat what we make?” asked someone, an old but reliable joke that brought a smile from seamed faces and fresh ones.

“I’m French-Canadian and, in my family, we made molasses cookies every Christmas,” offered 89-year-old Irene Boucher, who didn’t appear even remotely disappointed by Saturday’s dessert menu. “I worked at a bakery in Pennsylvania for nine years. A German fellow owned the place, and he was the best baker you ever saw.”

“I used to teach a men’s cooking class,” Phyllis counters. “Before they took my class, I used to see men walking around the supermarket with the recipe right in their hand. Can you believe that?”

Jacob said he could, but planned on a career in psychology and felt that cooking classes might be wasted on him.

“You could be a pastry chef on the weekends,” suggested Phyllis, only half kidding.

In fact, Elk Run’s sugar cookie extravaganza was the students’ second trip to the kitchen on Saturday.

“We were at the Evergreen Life Care Center this morning,” said Amy Lovin, mixing up a rainbow of creamy frostings. “We helped them make gingerbread houses out of cardboard and decorate them with frosting and marshmallows. My grandmother was at Life Care Center before she passed away. It was weird going back there, but I’m glad I did. It’s been a really good experience.”

And according to Elk Run’s activities director, Angela Pedotto, it works both ways.

“Intergenerational programs are always key,” said Angela, stopping by to joke with the residents and maybe snitch a cookie. “The older generation very much needs a purpose, and sharing a recipe, or a story, or just their experiences gives them a chance to impart something that will carry on. In that sense, these kids will pick up where these ladies leave off.”

“I’ve never been all that involved in the community until I joined Leaders Challenge,” said Sydney Berdon, sifting flower onto the table’s surface. “Meeting these women and hearing their stories is a great life experience. I feel like I’m really opening up to a lot of new things.”

Sugar cookies are also a great life experience, of course, but they don’t make themselves. Dough was distributed, holiday-shaped cookies cutters were produced, and 14 new friends got down to business. The seniors set to with real enthusiasm, smiling as they worked, their faces reflecting countless Christmas feasts, loving reunions and cozy kitchens of younger days. When old, knotted hands grew too tired to work the stiff dough, a pair of young, strong ones quickly picked up where they left off.

Once baked to golden brown and thickly frosted, the resulting confections were uniformly delicious and frequently unrecognizable.

“I love it,” said Helen Dardenski, an 84-year-old with a ready laugh and lively sense of humor. Helen’s gingerbread-man-shaped sugar cookie was the size of a salad plate and completely hidden beneath a quarter-inch of pink frosting. “Nobody’s perfect, so we laugh at them and they laugh at us. The heck of it is, I’m blind, so I can’t see what’s so funny.”

Across the table from Helen, a woman named Virginia sat in a wheelchair saying nothing. She seemed to enjoy the happy commotion around her, but could do little to join in. So Erin McMahon joined in for her.

Leaning down over the table, Erin kneaded Virginia’s portion to soft perfection, rolled it flat and stamped it into fanciful Christmas shapes, all the while chatting with her silent companion the way she might chat with a close girlfriend about next week’s swim meet or what movie they should see next weekend. Then, after baking, Erin carefully frosted them, gave them a generous blanket of sprinkles and, together, she and Virginia enjoyed a rare holiday treat. A lifetime of happy Christmas memories shone out in Virginia’s smile.

“She seemed to need some help, so I helped her,” said Erin, matter-of-factly. “She’s really a sweet lady.”

By 3:30, the dough was gone and several platefuls of cookies lay uneaten on the table. The heavenly aroma of their baking had drawn a crowd in the hallway, and they’d disappear soon enough. The students began tidying the activity room and washing the dishes.

“It’s nice to be able to bring them some fun,” said Erin, drying a cookie pan. “Coming here kind of makes you think about what other people need, and you don’t get so caught up in all of your own holiday stuff.”

To Phyllis and her friends, the little party was more than a bright spot of Christmas in an uneventful week. It was a chance to both revisit the past and meet the future.

“It’s very interesting to talk to them and see what they’re like,” Phyllis said. “They’re great kids.”

For the members of the Leader’s Challenge team, Saturday presented an opportunity to glimpse inside lives very different from their own, and take an important step toward understanding the world they’ll someday inherit.

“It was great to work with people who have done so much and have so many experiences to share,” agreed Sydney. “There’s so much they can teach us.”