Claire Ryan came to 30th Street Senior Center eight months ago as a Jesuit Volunteer Corps participant. Part of her duties include teaching in the center’s computer lab. The center is always a hive of activity, classes and games and meals and therapy happening through the many rooms. Claire can usually be found in the thick of it, starting bingo or adjusting the volume of music or helping people get meal tickets. She is always calm, focused, and ready to listen to members’ questions and make sure they understand the answers.
It is no wonder then that teaching is some of Claire’s favorite work. She is thrilled to observe students becoming more confident and engaged as they spend more time with the computers. “Even when they don’t know exactly what they want to learn, they want more classes, more opportunities to learn.” Her favorite thing is the ambition that the students bring as they seek to learn about a difficult, and often foreign, thing. She joys in the growing excitement as learners understand what digital devices can do for them. “For some it’s typing up a poem. For some it’s staying in touch. For some it is figuring out what the Internet is. They just keep at it until they get to the next level.”
Besides tutoring in the lab and teaching classes, Claire also trains lab monitors, individuals who watch over the computers and learners but do not tutor. “They have such good ideas,” says Claire. “There are a lot of regulars who are invested in the lab, in improving it. We recently changed which side of the computer the ‘please don’t turn off the monitors’ sign is on so that it is over by the off button. The monitors pointed out how that made sense. They are right. We had to do that.”
Impressed by the constant engagement that the learners have in the lab space, she is also respectful of the fact that the center is the learners’ center. “It’s their place. Many of them have been coming since long before I came and will be here long after I stop coming.”
During her year, Claire hoped for an opportunity to engage with people from other cultures. She has been perhaps a bit surprised to engage with a culture she had not considered much before: senior citizens. Fresh from college, an environment where one rarely encounters older people, she had not thought much about aging beyond societal images. “Our society kind of has an image of older people as just surviving, just hanging on. That’s not true at all. Everyone here is vital, living and learning, running this place.” Finding the participants full of excitement and taking on foreign things when they could just reject them, she now has a more positive view of aging.
As for her own, personal engagement with the seniors in the computer lab, Claire says, “The exchange of experience between young people and old people is so cool. I can teach them computers: that’s something I know. They, however, have eighty years of life experience, and I’m lucky that they share this with me. In this exchange, I feel so lucky to have something to bring to the table.”
In a few months, she will be completing her year. We will all be sad to see her move on but happy to know she leaves a better teacher, committed to her community. Until that time, however, she will keep doing very good work. “I’m learning to do the job from those I’m serving.” Clearly, she learns well.
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