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64 MAY 2004
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from the soapbox

The legacy of O'Neil and Mrs. Kennedy: There is good wine in old bottles

Karen vanderVen

Generations since I last saw them, I remember them well: Mrs O'Neil and Mrs. Kennedy – their real names. We all worked in a public psychiatric hospital that had the most difficult youth in the state – and lots of them. Behavior problems abounded: Fights. Swearing. Broken windows, light fixtures, locks. Stealing. Bullying. Severe physical acting out and violent temper tantrums that took several strong men to restrain. The staff, including me, was continually vigilant and searching for ways to deal with these challenges. No sooner was one crisis settled than another would occur. In the midst of us were two unusual people. O'Neil, as the kids called her (“O'Neil is on tonight") and Mrs. Kennedy, a recreation worker. O'Neil must have been well into her 60s. She had silver hair, flashing blue eyes and couldn’t have been more than 5 feet tall. Her job, along with one other person, was to serve as ward attendant (as they were called) to 40 youth and young men. She wore the required white nurse's-style uniform with a handkerchief tucked in her pocket and soft soled white shoes. Mrs. Kennedy despite her assignment to the Recreation Department, was slender and frail. Each afternoon she came to the unit to pick up a rambunctious group to take them to recreation. Mrs. Kennedy (whose gently wrinkled face was an age giveaway) always wore a skirt, flowered blouse and earrings – dressed like the gracious matron that she was. Not a hair was out of place. Now, what was significant about this ?

These two women not only never had “behavior problems” with the youth, they also brought out in them the best that was lurking beneath their blustery surfaces. O'Neil walked with great confidence, holding her keys in her hand. She didn’t know how to do a life space interview. She did not know the psychological 'language'. She had never seen the case histories and psychiatric reports. She would just look up to any youth who was getting out of line or building up to an outburst and tell him what she thought. She didn’t like swearing, she didn’t want someone to lose control and have to go to the “quiet” room. She knew he could do better. She expected him to. And he did. The kids loved her. As for Mrs. Kennedy, how could these huge adolescents get rough around this lady ? How could they act out when they knew she wouldn’t be able to handle them physically ? So they didn’t. “Shut up!! Mrs. Kennedy is here”, one would hiss to another when a barrage of “swear words” spewed forth. And he did.

I finally got it. These two women had the grace, maturity and authority of age. They gave of themselves: what they had experienced in life and the way they saw it was what they offered.

The youth warmed to it. However, back then there was no name for the fact that older people had something wonderful to offer troubled youth. Much has happened in the years since I knew O'Neil and Mrs. Kennedy. There is now a name for the programs offered that combine older people and younger people together in mutually beneficial activities: Intergenerational programs. There is now a name for the involvement of adults in a relationship with a younger person: Mentoring. Participation in a formal program that combines older and younger is a way of helping people of different generations get together who otherwise might make the connection “which is hard in this age, in this segregated, mobile world. However, any older adult can find spontaneous opportunities to show interest in and offer support to, a child or youth.

A recent posting on CYC-Net brought up the issue of age in child and youth workers, whether age should be a factor in considering whether or not they could contribute to the well-being of young people ? This column is partially a response to that, and to me the response is clear.

So, as the years go by for all of us – and I’ve seen quite a few of them myself – I urge Child and Youth Care workers to recognize that as age comes, the ability to offer something special to children and youth not only continues, but may even be enhanced.

Indeed. as the saying more or less goes, there’s good wine in those old bottles !

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