“There’s a lot of love here, and you feel it when you walk in the door.”
That’s how teacher Pamela Jenkins describes the atmosphere at WovenLife, where she works with Head Start students in one of the most unique caregiving environments in the country. She knows whereof she speaks—walking through the door is to be enveloped in a friendly, positive atmosphere that’s visible on the faces of both children and adults.
WovenLife is one of the many intergenerational programs springing up across the United States that put seniors and young children in the same environment, resulting in significant social and developmental benefits for both. The Oklahoma City-based nonprofit takes that concept a step further, however, integrating not only children and seniors, but also a large number of special-needs children with developmental and other disabilities. The children are infants through age six, while the adult day care is open to adults over age 18, primarily senior citizens. There’s also a full spectrum of medical rehabilitation and support services, plus financial assistance with purchasing medical equipment.
The program’s name was selected to reflect its mission to weave people of all ages, all backgrounds, and all levels of ability into a positive “tapestry” that boosts socialization, education, acceptance, tolerance, and an overall better quality of life, said WovenLife’s president and CEO, David Wood. It all starts with the interaction of the seniors and children, who share time together several times a week.
“Both sides have their own defined activities,” he said. “But on a weekly basis we get both groups together for art projects. We also do reading, music, puppet shows, science presentations, and physical activities together. Some of our seniors and kids even designed our new logo!”
Thread #1: The Children
WovenLife cares for children through age six, and about half are children with some type of special need, Jenkins and Wood said. The program’s location, adjacent to the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, has resulted in enrollment of children from all types of backgrounds and multiple countries, which further expands the inclusive environment, they said. Having children at different developmental levels intermingled at such a young age is a very critical element.
“When you see them playing together, the kids don’t notice that their friends are any different,” Jenkins said. “Having this inclusivity builds social skills and tolerance and will help make this type of acceptance more mainstream.”
Recently, WovenLife was approved to participate in the Head Start program, and the monies from that designation were used to make capital improvements to the classrooms, including new paint, floors, and lighting, Wood said. There are currently 60 students in the overall program, but that figure is rising through word of mouth and as Head Start enrollments begin.
Thread #2: The Seniors
There’s a huge need for daytime options for seniors who don’t require nursing-home-level care but aren’t entirely safe being left alone during the day. A major strand of the WovenLife cord is the adult day care facility, where seniors come to socialize in a welcoming and stimulating environment. Licensed and trained staff members are on hand for those who need extra help with everyday activities, those who are in the milder stages of dementia, or even those who are pre-hospice. The program’s attendees, staff, and family members unanimously agree that the opportunity to escape isolation and spend time with others during the day is incredibly beneficial for the older adults.
Shani Nealy’s 89-year-old grandmother, Vashti Johnson, has been attending the adult day care since it opened three years ago, and Nealy said it’s been a godsend for her family.
“She loves it there, and the experience has been great for all of us,” she said. “It’s a peace of mind knowing where she can go, and we don’t have to worry about her day to day. She helps out. She folds clothes and helps new people integrate into the environment. She looks forward to it; it makes her feel like she has a purpose.”
Nealy added that her grandmother is a prime example of how positive the senior-child bonds are for both generations.
“My grandmother had 12 kids. She practically raised 50 grandkids and has 30 great-grandkids, so she loves it when they do things (together),” she said. “Being able to still be near children is wonderful for her. Her face lights up whenever they show up.”
Thread #3: The Medical Rehabilitation
For both children and adults, the WovenLife licensed clinical staff provides behavioral therapy, speech and language therapy, and occupational therapy. Screenings and evaluations also are done to help determine appropriate levels of care for children with disabilities through physical, developmental, and behavioral assessments.
Medical rehabilitation program director Mary Jackson, who also serves as the school counselor, said that the chief focus of the staff is to provide a loving, caring environment where the children are accepted without reservation and can learn and develop. Something that’s not discussed often, she said, is that in addition to struggling with their disability, some children deal with trauma from being bullied or shunned as “different” by members of the general public.
“Young children who have things like cerebral palsy or Down syndrome have a different filter on the world and how people interact with them,” Jackson said. “Trauma and disability often go hand in hand, but people don’t necessarily put the two together. Whatever happens out there, here they are safe, they are loved, and they are cared for.”
Thread #4: The Support
It’s not just the kids who experience stress. Caregivers for seniors and for special-needs children are at tremendous risk for burnout. WovenLife partners with Sunbeam Family Services to provide a monthly support group, where caregivers can share information and advice, as well as receive emotional support. There’s also a support group specifically for parents.
Thread #5: The Financial Help
As a nonprofit, many of WovenLife’s students and adults are subsidized through programs like Medicare and Head Start. One of the most critical sources of funding for parents of special-needs children, Wood said, is the Opportunity Scholarship Fund (OSF). OSF uses funds from private donors to provide scholarships to low-income students who would not normally have a pathway to an education that fits their specific needs.
“The Opportunity Scholarship Fund allows families the opportunity to send their children to WovenLife and receive the specialized services we offer,” Wood said. “Regardless of their income, every child deserves a quality education and the option to attend the school that meets their needs.”
Next year the school is hoping to also participate in the State of Oklahoma’s Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship program, which provides tuition and funding assistance to low-income parents of children with special needs.
WovenLife is a direct descendant of the original Oklahoma Society for Crippled Children, which was established in 1925, and the Oklahoma Easter Seal Agency, incorporated in 1948. The two groups would merge in 2002 into Easter Seals of Oklahoma, continuing their mission to help children and adults with disabilities. Fast-forward to 2017, when the organization disaffiliated from the national Easter Seals and the current WovenLife program was born. (You can learn more at www.wovenlifeok.org or on Facebook at WovenLifeOK.)
Since the school is still relatively new, Wood said the current focus is on solidifying its narrative and increasing outreach to the broader community. Enrollment is already rising, though, thanks to word of mouth.
“We chose the name WovenLife because it refers to the sophistication of our care, as well as the complexity of the lives of those we are working with,” Wood said. “Young and old, abled and differently abled, we are where their paths cross. And when so many people with different backgrounds and different futures all come together and you start to zoom out, you see a bigger picture—something beautiful, akin to a woven tapestry.”