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Building Bridges Across Ages and Cultures

The City of Brotherly Love helps older immigrants transition to their new lives

Project Shine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

Tai Chi outdoors, Age Friendly Communties, AARP Livable Communities

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A group of four seniors practice tai chi a park. Project SHINE (Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders) pairs student volunteers with elderly immigrants in 16 states to help them adjust to life in the United States. The learning flows both ways.

Project SHINE (Students Helping in the Naturalization of Elders) was founded almost 30 years ago after Nancy Henkin, the founder and director of the Intergenerational Center at Temple University, read about an elderly Laotian woman who had apparently felt so lonely and isolated after arriving in the United States that she decided to take her own life. 

"I did a little research and realized that older immigrants and refugees were really invisible in our community," Henkin recalls. "People were focused on teaching English to young students, but thinking about how to integrate older people with limited English skills was just not on anyone's radar."

The Temple University program pairs student volunteers with elderly immigrants in center-city Philadelphia to help ease their transition to a new culture. At local ethnic-based community organizations, senior centers, churches, temples and coffee shops, Project SHINE volunteers can be found teaching conversational English, life skills, citizenship preparation and health literacy skills to immigrants and refugees, who gather to socialize, enjoy a hot meal, grab a take-home snack, or receive help with the myriad problems such newcomers typically face.

But the teaching flows both ways. "The students also learn a lot from the seniors," says Philip Lai, the center's director. Adds Henkin: "It's an incredible cross-cultural, cross-age experience where both young and old teach and learn. It's a win-win situation."

The Details

Every semester, student volunteers from bilingual or bicultural families come to Project SHINE through work-study programs, classes or by word of mouth.

After receiving English as a Second Language training, plus culture and communication training, the young people begin meeting with older immigrants or refugees at community-based venues. The volunteers work with their older "students," either one-on-one or in very small groups.

In Philadelphia, Project SHINE partners with more than a dozen community-based organizations that serve varied immigrant and refugee populations. Other partners include senior centers, churches, temples, community centers and housing developments.

The Costs

Project SHINE receives major support from the Corporation for National & Community Service, the MetLife Foundation and the New York Life Foundation. Program funds also come from local grants and donations from colleges and universities.

The program's strong relationships with community-based partners help it find and connect with older immigrants and refugees.

The Results

Project SHINE is active in 16 states. Each semester more than 100 students provide at least five hours a week of service. The students typically teach conversational English, but some work on health literacy and, since many of the older adults have never touched a computer, there is a high demand for technology training.

The experience can be inspirational — even transformative. One older learner explained that the student he worked with "was the first American I've really gotten to know." People who participated in Project SHINE as students still point to the impact the program has had on their lives. 


Published August 2015

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