WOHS students to help seniors with tech

Mountaineer Mentors look forward to assisting seniors

Photo by Sean Quinn
Senior advocate Rosary Morelli applauds the new Mountaineer Mentors initiative.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange High School Mountaineer Mentors will soon hold a free program in which senior citizens can learn how to use technology that is new to them.

The initiative, which will be held at the high school on May 22 and June 12, will teach seniors everything from email to social media to other computer basics. In addition, student mentors will be on hand to provide personal help with iPads, smartphones and other devices.

Event organizer Susan Scarpa said the program intends to give senior citizens the tools they need to keep in touch with loved ones. And while logging into Facebook to connect with friends and family might not seem like much to young people, Scarpa said it could make a huge difference in the lives of the elderly.

“Loneliness is one of the key problems that seniors face,” Scarpa told the West Orange Chronicle in a May 12 phone interview. “When they do get technology, it can fill that void where they’re socially isolated.”

For that reason, many communities are implementing similar initiatives to educate seniors about basic technology. Resident senior advocate Rosary Morelli attended one such event at the Livingston Public Library and was surprised by what she saw: a room packed with elderly people becoming proficient with gadgets they’d felt inadequate with before, while also engaging in conversations with their young teachers. Morelli thought it would be perfect for West Orange, so she raised the idea with Scarpa when discussing what could be done to help seniors without costing the township money. Scarpa, who works as a speech therapist for the West Orange School District, loved the idea so much she brought it to WOHS Principal Hayden Moore.

Now that the program is actually happening, Morelli said she is eager for West Orange’s senior citizen population to reap the same benefits she experienced in Livingston. For one, she said being able to socialize is a great way to fight loneliness. Attendees will also be able to get exercise since the initiative includes a class on chair yoga, she said. Of course, she said learning about technology ensures that the township’s elderly will be able to take advantage of modern resources such as Uber and other transportation apps that could help if they cannot drive.

“We have to keep up with the times,” Morelli told the Chronicle in a May 11 phone interview. “If we don’t keep up … we’re going to be left out and not involved. So we can learn — what we need to do is have programs that work with us and for us.”

Both Morelli and Scarpa also acknowledged that the intergenerational aspect of the program is an asset. Morelli said seniors love interacting with young people, so having them work with West Orange teens in this manner should certainly lift their spirits. At the same time, Scarpa said, senior citizens have a wealth of knowledge from which the teens can benefit.

“They have so much to offer our students, and our students have so much that they can learn from our seniors,” Scarpa said, pointing out that being exposed to working with older people in this way might even inspire the participating teens to pursue a career helping the elderly.

Having the chance to break down barriers and connect students with senior citizens was a key reason Moore agreed to institute the technology classes. The principal said young people can gain a lot of insight by talking to older people who might have encountered the same issues they are experiencing. It is a way of allowing the youth to grow holistically, he said.

In addition, Moore said the program says a lot about the nature of West Orange High School.

“It’s another example of how there’s unity right here in our diversity,” Moore told the Chronicle in a May 12 phone interview. “We are not afraid to get to know other people and interact with them and learn from them. That’s the beauty of West Orange High School, that unity right in diversity. But it also shows why we are like this — it’s because of students like (the program participants) who embrace such opportunity and really run with it.”

Those students are not typical young people, though. The Mountaineer Mentors are 100 of the school’s most promising leaders culled from a rigorous application and interview process. They are not necessarily at the top of the class academically, Moore stressed, since everyone has different traits and experiences they can use to help others. But what they all share is a strong character, commitment and work ethic, he said.

Using those attributes, Mountaineer Mentors support freshmen as they acclimate to high school, and engage in a number of school and community outreach efforts, such as participating in Relay for Life, helping the Nikhil Badlani Foundation and hosting the annual senior citizen prom. The mentors most recently held Mountaineer Care Day, an event in which they worked with district students who have disabilities.

Yet for all the good they do for others, the Mountaineer Mentors reap rewards of their own. Meghan White and Madeline Narduzzi, the two mentors who took a lead in coordinating the senior technology program, agreed the initiative has had an indelible impact on their high school experiences. White said it has gotten her more involved with the school and strengthened her character. Narduzzi said she too has been able to hone her leadership skills through the program, which has given her a newfound appreciation for the township as a whole.

“Being able to mentor and work with the freshmen and doing all the other communal activities that we’ve done, it’s just really given me a lot of pride to say that I’m from West Orange,” Narduzzi told the Chronicle in a May 12 phone interview, adding that she wants to “give back to the community because it’s given me so much.”

The two mentors were also excited about the prospect of working with the seniors. Narduzzi said she is looking forward to talking with them so she can learn about their history. To White, the technology program represents a chance to learn how to connect with a different age group.

“My grandparents don’t live near me, so I don’t get to interact with the elderly at all,” White told the Chronicle in a May 12 phone interview. “This could really get me some experience.”

This will not be the last opportunity for students to get experience working with seniors. Stephan Zichella, the dean who oversees the Mountaineer Mentors, said the goal moving forward is to expand on the technology program to offer more initiatives for seniors in the next school year. Zichella said a community leaf rake and coordinated walks around the Orange Reservoir are possible activities, with more ideas currently being brainstormed.

Morelli said she would love to see WOHS continue to help the township’s senior population, and is impressed by their enthusiasm for the technology program. She has also talked with West Orange Public Library Director David Cubie and West Orange Recreation Director Bill Kehoe about initiatives that might be offered at their venues. And she definitely wants to maintain the relationship between the West Orange Police Department and the senior citizen community, pointing out that the Community Services Unit’s past presentations on senior scams and pedestrian safety have been very well received.

Right now, however, everyone involved is eagerly anticipating the senior citizen technology program. Though it is still a few days away, Zichella said he believes it will be a rousing success.

“Our students will greatly benefit from this rewarding experience, and obviously our seniors could use a lot of assistance with technology,” Zichella told the Chronicle in a May 12 phone interview. “I’m very confident that this is going to be a wonderful experience and a win-win for our students and also for our seniors.”