Seven years ago this October, Magnolia Blossom Preschool opened its doors inside Harvest Homes Assisted Living facility in Portland, OR. We didn’t need to build community; we were warmly welcomed into a vibrant one. We share 2.5 country acres—squirrels, rabbits, chickens, apple trees, plum trees, blackberry brambles, grape vines, sunflowers, pumpkins, piles of leaves, piles of dirt, piles of gravel, and more—with around 80 or so grandmas and grandpas. We share a story time each month. We do a seasonal craft together monthly. Last year, we began a weekly sing-a-long.
My favorite interactions, though, are the spontaneous ones, when we walk through the dining hall everyday on our way to the sandbox and grandmas and grandpas and aunties and uncles (that’s what we call the employees and caregivers), cast their twinkling eyes in our direction. Grandma Judy always has something to say: “They’re such beautiful children. They just make my day.” Or when we run out of an ingredient for baking, and we go up and visit Uncle Nate in the kitchen. “How are y’all doing?” he booms from behind the stainless steel counter. “Whatcha y’all need? My look at you boy, you’ve grown.” (I love that the cook knows the children well enough that he notices when they’ve grown. He was talking about Seamus; and it was true he’d had a growth spurt.) We purposely placed our sandbox in a courtyard that is banked by windows on three sides. Grandmas and grandpas walk by and smile. Sometimes they take a seat and just watch. Their smiles and their waves speak volumes. Grandma Rose comes by every day and knocks on the glass until children lift their heads, wave and smile, and then get back to their digging. Her joy is palpable. I do believe sometimes I catch a whisper of a glimpse of the child that she herself once was.
We also share seasonal festivals. Each fall the Home invites us to a Harvest Festival that includes a hayride, a hay bale maze, music, a shared meal and other fun and games. We do a costume parade on Halloween, a specific request of the seniors. Our Lantern Walk always starts inside the dining room when we turn down the lights and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Harvest Homes invites us to their annual Christmas Party. We start with a preschool potluck and then come upstairs and sing “Jingle Bells” to all the gathered guests. Far and away my very favorite festival is May Day. Miss Lucy, our gardener, always helps us secure enough flowers. We block off the parking lot and set up the May Pole so that grandmas and grandpas can either watch on benches outside or from their dining tables inside. We sing; Uncle John–our favorite guitar wielding, screwdriver toting maintenance guy just down the hall from us)–plays the accordion. Our festival concludes with the parents and children delivering 80+ flower cones to all of the residents and staff. It is a joyous day!
When people meet me and ask me what I do, I tell them that I have a preschool in an assisted living facility. Without exception, people pause and smile and say, “What a great idea!” I say the little ones think that they are helping the seniors and they are, and the seniors think they are helping the little ones and they are. The truth is we are all helping each other. All of us. That is what building community is really all about, isn’t it?
Marguerite Aichele-Smith is the owner and lead teacher at Magnolia Blossom Preschool, a LifeWays Representative Program within Harvest House Assisted Living in Portland, OR. She has an undergraduate degree in Early Childhood Education and a master’s degree in Conflict Resolution.