There aren’t many preschools like Bellingham’s Generations Early Learning & Family Center. Located in the basement of a retirement community, the young students take an active role in the lives of the seniors who live upstairs, improving the health and well-being of the residents at Mt. Baker Care Center and Summit Place Assisted Living by keeping them active and helping drive away loneliness and memory problems.
A Different Kind of Learning Environment
When Generations opened in 1985, the national press described it as the first intergenerational program of its kind in the nation. It was the brainchild of Jim Hall, who had been raised in a family that operated nursing homes, and learned first-hand the great value that retirees and children could offer each other. Generations’ current Executive Director, Heidi Bugbee, learned very similar lessons from a different point of view.
Bugbee was involved in providing care for her elderly parents, and also had a deep interest in the lives of youngsters. She moved to Whatcom County to study child development at Western Washington University, then never left. She has spent the last 18 years working with the St. Francis Foundation’s Early Learning Center and was there when St. Francis of Bellingham’s skilled nursing facility was bought out by a larger corporation that decided to use the space for a different purpose.
A New Home at Summit Place
Because there were roughly 60 families with children in the school, Bugbee pounded the pavement and knocked on doors until she met nursing homeowners Andy and Jim Clay. They loved the idea of bringing children in, and offered space in the basement of the building that houses Mt. Baker Care Center and Summit Place. As soon as the school moved in, everybody began the process of weaving their communities together — students, seniors, family members and staff members all developed new kinds of beneficial relationships, thanks to the unique partnership.
Fortunately, Generations had found a strong and supportive home just before adversity struck. “We were building the program here, going strong, and then COVID hit. Kids still came into the daycare, and residents still lived upstairs, but we were all in our COVID bubbles and couldn’t mix together like we normally would,” says Bugbee. The world had a new set of challenges to face, and schools and residential facilities found they had a lot of work to do to keep their students and residents safe.
Another New Beginning
After a few starts and stops, Bugbee is happy to say that Generations is now back to operating at full steam these days. They have hosted a series of visitors and are planning a full slate of activities that will keep engagement high for everyone involved. But the really important thing is that the youth and their elders are spending time with each other once again. “You can see the joy for the kids, and the residents. Now that the babies can come back upstairs for visits, they’ve been really popular. And we have the cutest group in Whatcom County,” she says.
There are currently about 90 kids enrolled in the program, ranging in age from 12 months to six years, and Bugbee says that the majority of families become involved because they value the enrichment that comes with the intergenerational interplay. Bugbee also comes across families that are nervous about the unconventional nature of childcare in a nursing home, but the benefits quickly make themselves obvious. “It can be hard to put into words, but once they see it in action, they really get it,” she says.
Their popularity means they do have a waiting list, but they are open to new inquiries. Parents can expect a questionnaire that helps the school ensure a diverse cross-section of students and families. They accept Working Connections Child Care and DSHS vouchers, as well as offering their own tuition assistance.
They are also looking to expand, by including a program that will provide care for babies younger than 12 months. After some remodeling, receiving new licenses and a round of fundraising, there should be room for eight more students by June of 2024.
In the meantime, it’s all about keeping the kids learning, and enriching the lives of the senior residents. This summer they have blended education, entertainment, and therapy during visits from a horse and a parrot, as well hosting a pet parade. They’ve also seen performances by an opera singer and a hula dancer and are gearing up for an ice cream social, followed later by a carnival. “Music, animals, food — what more could you want?” says Bugbee. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 4, 40 or 94, it means something to you.”