A UCLA-run program offers senior citizens the opportunity to improve their health and contribute to research by volunteering at underachieving elementary schools in south Los Angeles.
The program, called Generation Xchange, is run by a group of researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine. The program doubles as a study to research the health benefits behind volunteering by pairing retired adults with elementary school classes.
Volunteers receive 32 hours of education training before helping teachers in assigned classrooms over the course of a school year. Researchers collected three blood samples over the nine-month period and surveyed their physical and mental health.
The group’s most recent publication in the January issue of ScienceDirect found that volunteers had reduced expressions of the conserved transcriptional response to adversity gene. The gene is linked to increased inflammation and weakened antiviral defenses.
Reductions of CTRA could improve antiviral defenses and reduce the volunteers’ risk of cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases, according to the study. Additionally, volunteers benefited from lower cholesterol, decreased blood pressure and weight loss.
Walking around classrooms keeps seniors active and away from unhealthy habits, said Teresa Seeman, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the School of Medicine. Seeman started Generation Xchange in 2000 on the East Coast with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, expanding to UCLA in 2014.
Social interaction helps reduce CTRA expression, which is known to be socially sensitive, according to the study.
However, even with the health benefits, Seeman said volunteers are primarily motivated to participate so they can help children.
The 54th Street Elementary School in south Los Angeles saw improved academic performance, reduced teacher turnover and lower student referrals by nearly 70% in the five years since the program’s implementation, said Haywood Thompson, the school’s principal. The school has since added Generation Xchange volunteers to all K-5 classrooms, Thompson said.
Many children who attend 54th Street Elementary come from troubled backgrounds, growing up in abusive homes or with negligent parents, Thompson said. Helping students while they are young could set them on an upward trajectory, he added.
Having the volunteers in the class gives students another person to open up to, said D’Ann Morris, the Generation Xchange co-leader
“They’re kind of like their new best friend,” Morris said. “The kids trust them. It’s the other adult they can go to.”
Seeman said she was inspired to make a program that could benefit both a growing senior citizen population and children needing education funding.
Denise Conn, a volunteer at 54th Street, said her blood pressure has improved and she has lost weight since joining. However, Conn said she volunteers because of the impact she has on kids.
“I’ve been here so long that I have watched an entire first grade graduate (from elementary school) and leave, and they were still running up and hugging me,” she said. “That’s the impact.”
Five schools in south LA have adopted the program since its inception, Seeman said. She added she hopes to secure more funding to expand to more schools. However, there isn’t enough evidence from the study to convince a large organization like the Los Angeles Unified School District for long-term funding, Seeman added.
Morris White, another volunteer at 54th Street, said he looks forward to coming to the school because of the affectionate relationships he has with the students.
“You give them a little bit, they get affectionate, they spark you,” he said. “Every day that I come here, I look forward to it.”