The budding relationships began awkwardly.
A small number of elderly Steamboat Springs residents were escorted into the activities room at the Doak Walker Care Center. Already seated at four tables were fourth-grade students from Don Schwartz's Strawberry Park Elementary School class.
While the students worked on paper kite art projects, the Doak Walk residents sat quietly among them and watched. Some of the fourth-graders exchanged sideways glances or nervous smiles with their classmates.
But whatever apprehension existed had vanished within minutes, as the children sparked conversations about sports, hobbies and whatever else came to mind.
Some of the residents enthusiastically participated in the conversations; others have disabilities that prevent them from speaking.
"I like being here with you," Doak Walker resident Al Selk told fourth-graders Megan Stabile and Hunter Gansmann, who sat on either side of him.
"It's really fun being here with you guys, too," Stabile replied.
Wednesday's trip was the first of several trips Schwartz's class will take to Doak Walker during the school year. Strawberry Park's other fourth-grade classes also will visit the care center throughout the year.
The intergenerational visits are part of a program Schwartz and a former teaching partner began about 10 years ago. Partially funded by a grant from the Legacy Education Foundation, the program emphasizes bringing elementary school students and senior citizens together.
The benefits of the program are numerous, said Schwartz and Doak Walker activities aide Marles Humphrey.
"One of the benefits that we find is so many of the residents are missing their grandkids, and so many of the children have grandparents that live in other states, so they really bond," Humphrey said.
Visiting with children is almost always the highlight of the day for Doak Walker's residents, some of whom never miss an opportunity to spend time with Routt County's youngest generation.
"The children just keep them young, and that's what's so wonderful," Humphrey said.
The conversations and activities also provide elderly residents with mental stimuli.
For the elementary school students, spending time at Doak Walker allows them to see and interact with a segment of the community they don't usually spend time with, Schwartz said. The group activities teach children compassion and give them a chance to spend time with people of their grandparents' generation.
During the years, Schwartz has seen some of his students who struggle academically thrive when interacting with senior citizens.
"It can bring out the best in some of the kids," he said.
This year's fourth-graders prepared for the visit by touring Doak Walker and learning about its services and residents. Schwartz encourages his students to keep dialogues flowing, even if they're with residents who can't respond.
"They don't seem to be put off at all by people with disabilities," Humphrey said. "They relate to them on a personal level."
Nine-year-old Christian Ramirez enjoyed his first experience at the care center, where he made a kite for resident Gertrude Hogrefe.
"I think it was fun because some of us made some of the residents' days," Ramirez said. "They're probably going to feel good for a long time, and then more kids will visit them and make them even more happy."
Doak Walker resident Jean Galusha loved spending time with the fourth-graders.
"I just enjoy watching them and seeing what they're doing," Galusha said. Because her grandchildren live in Montana, Galusha said she appreciates the chance to spend time with other young children.
"It's great to be here, sitting with the kids," she said. "The children keep me young."