Strawberry Park Elementary School teacher Don Schwartz will retire this year. His career stretches 27 years and included 22 in the Steamboat Springs School district.

Photo by John F. Russell

Strawberry Park Elementary School teacher Don Schwartz will retire this year. His career stretches 27 years and included 22 in the Steamboat Springs School district.

Years of friendships

Schwartz helped connect students with senior citizens

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Don Schwartz valiantly declares that when he retires, he plans on "running for Congress" - a peculiar statement given his quiet, confident persona.

But Schwartz has spent a career exceeding expectations.

After 27 years of teaching, including 22 years as part of the Steamboat Springs School District, Schwartz is retiring after this school year from his position as an elementary school teacher. He intends to spend his time traveling, pursuing small-scale business ventures, participating in hobbies more regularly, reading, writing, doing photography, volunteering and working as a substitute teacher.

Schwartz always has enjoyed working with children. In his teenage years, he surrounded himself with children by working as a camp counselor. In college, he studied psychology. Schwartz knew he wanted to become a teacher after spending time in the classroom with a friend who worked as a student teacher.

"I enjoyed the enthusiasm of the kids," he said.

Schwartz has taught second, third, fourth and fifth grades at Strawberry Park Elementary School.

Fifteen years ago, Schwartz and Maggie Glueck, now a teacher at Steamboat Springs High School, started a program with the Doak Walker Care Center. The program still is active and elementary school classes visit the Doak Walker Care Center weekly. The students spend time with the residents doing art projects and occasionally making performances - but always connecting with the residents.

Celia Buckley, of the Community Life Department at Doak Walker, arranges special and daily events for the residents and takes care of their daily needs. She said the weekly visits from students have become part of the residents' routine.

The right medicine

Doak Walker is an Eden Alternative Facility, based on 10 principles to improve the lives of seniors by addressing the "three plagues of the elderly."

"The three plagues of the elderly are loneliness, helplessness and boredom," Buckley said. "Each plague has an antidote."

The weekly visits from elementary students provide anecdotes for all of the plagues, she said.

"The antidote to loneliness is loving companionship," she said. Interactions and special connections made between the students and the residents during art projects and performances allows for this companionship with the youths.

"The antidote to helplessness is the opportunity to give, as well as receive," Buckley said, explaining that Doak Walker residents assist the children with arts and crafts projects.

"The antidote to boredom is spontaneity," she said, "You never quite knew what was going to happen when the students visited the elders."

Lasting friendships

When Schwartz and Glueck originated the idea of student visits to Doak Walker 15 years ago, they were looking for a regular community service project that would benefit the students and the people in the community. They wanted the students to make a connection with community members in need.

The program has provided that connection. The students' energy and liveliness have become part of the seniors' weekly routine - and artwork decorating the dining room serves as a reminder of the bubbly students.

"The residents hear their voices, and feel their energy," Schwartz said. Even if they are not well enough to participate, they greatly enjoy the vivacity the students bring to the care center.

When the program began, fourth- and fifth-grade classes visited Doak Walker, but these days, second-graders volunteer.

"The second-graders tend to be more talkative," Schwartz said.

One of four second-grade classes visits Doak Walker weekly, so students make the trip once a month. During that time, a tremendous connection is made.

Buckley said she was pleasantly surprised at the relationships that were developed in such a short time. She said certain students developed a special relationship with a particular resident and would ask to sit by them and make art and decorations for their rooms.

"There is no question they develop relationships with the elders," she said.

Doak Walker residents and staff members are extremely grateful to Schwartz. They say the program is run with poise and organization, and the students are natural and alive with the elders.

"The program is a huge asset to our facility and I hope to see it continue," Buckley said.

Schwartz said Strawberry Park Elementary School intends on continuing the program after he has retired - and for this, all involved are thankful.

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