ECU student Katelyn Nall, right, shares a laugh with Golden Living Center resident Mildred Blackman during a Bingo game arranged through the Adopt-a-Grandparent program. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

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Adopt-a-Grandparent matches students with senior adults

Dec. 3, 2013

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

Katie Simpson has received more than an education at East Carolina University. She has new grandparents.

Simpson spends at least an hour a week at Golden Living Center in Greenville through the "Adopt-a-Grandparent" program with the goal to match students and local senior citizens for supportive, meaningful, one-on-one relationships. Simpson learned about the program at the ECU Volunteer and Service-Learning Center.
ECU student Katie Simpson, standing, works with resident Eva Murray during a Bingo game held for senior adults at the Golden Living Center.

"From one-time activities to ongoing service experiences in the community to service-learning courses, there are so many opportunities through the VSLC to extend your education beyond the classroom and campus," said Dennis McCunney, director of ECU's Volunteer and Service-Learning Center. "These experiential learning opportunities can really help students figure out where they can best use their skills and talents. At the same time, students learn from local community members through that direct contact."

In her Cornelius high school, Simpson volunteered with children with special needs, which inspired her ultimate career choice: occupational therapy. When she came to ECU, she wanted to try working with a different group.

"I may want to do something in gerontology now because of my experience with 'Adopt-a-Grandparent,' " Simpson said. "It's been awesome."

Golden Living Center offers short-term and long-term rehabilitation and end-of-life Hospice care. Residents often are recovering from hip fractures or hip replacement, heart attacks, falls, motor vehicle accidents or any type of acute medical condition that requires hospitalization for three days or more. ECU's Department of Family Medicine provides primary medical care for the center's 152 residents, and health sciences students go there for clinical learning.

Terry Edwards, director of recreation and volunteer services at the center, said the visits from ECU students are like "medicine to their spirit. It's something a pill or money can't buy."

On a recent weekday, ECU students from Gamma Sigma Sigma service sorority, recreational therapy and other majors played bingo with residents.

Video by Bryan Edge

In between rounds, they sang requests like "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" and "You are my Sunshine."

Lindsay Caddell, a junior nursing major and sorority member, has been volunteering at the center since she was a freshman. "I love all the residents and love doing bingo," said Caddell, an EC Scholar from West End. "Coming here is a great stress reliever."

Students lead a variety of activities from scrapbooking to art projects to painting nails, playing music and more. "It's genuine and goes beyond fulfilling a task. It's a commitment. It's something that blossoms between that resident and volunteer," Edwards said.

The interaction helps rejuvenate interests that may have been set aside because of ailment or age. "We have to show them a reason to keep going. It's that feeling of wanting to be loved and respected," Edwards said.

'Smiling with her eyes'

Simpson experienced what it's like to lose someone close for the first time this summer when her adopted grandparent Arlene Searcey died.

"I knew it was coming," Simpson said. "At the end of my first year, she would say things like 'I'm ready to go home.' This year, I noticed she was doing it more."

Searcey liked to sing in church services, and it was one of the last happy things Simpson shared before Searcey's health failed quickly.

Simpson said it was a scary experience and one that she would never forget. "The time I spent with her, in her last moments, I would never give that away," she said. "She opened her eyes for the first time in three days. She didn't have a lot of facial expression, but I could tell she was smiling with her eyes. I was holding her hand when she passed away."

In those final days, Simpson learned even more about Searcey from her family, whom she came to know through the years. "They filled in all her memories," Simpson said. "She was a very rambunctious woman. If you've ever seen 'Driving Miss Daisy,' that was her."

At the family's request, Simpson started visiting regularly with Searcey's sister, Blanche Tillias, who also lives at Golden Living Center.

'Something everybody looks forward to'

As Simpson prepares to graduate this month with a bachelor's degree in psychology, she wants other students thinking about volunteer service to dive in.

"I thought it would be depressing," said Simpson, who has applied to graduate school for occupational therapy. "But they want to have fun. They genuinely want to see you. If you're not there when you're supposed to be, they will call you out the next time they see you."

Caddell said students should give back to the community. "It's important for them to see young people who want to be involved, and that they're not forgotten," Caddell said. "It can make their day for us to come here, but it can also make our day."

Resident Rena Medlin, who is vice president of Golden Living's resident's council, said the student visits are wonderful. "It's something that everybody looks forward to - always," she said.

Students in the program are asked to attend orientation, monthly meetings and reflection events and to commit to visiting their adopted grandparent(s) at least once a week with the goal of completing at least 32 hours by the end of the semester, said Nichelle Shuck, the VSLC's associate director.

"We are very excited to start the 2014 spring semester with a focused effort around building strong friendships with students and residents at Golden Living Center," Shuck said. "We encourage all ECU students and community members to be a part of the power of creating friendship from all ages and sharing our stories with each other and the community."

Students who are interested may join the Adopt-A-Grandparent OrgSync portal at: For more information, contact Shuck at or 252-328-6979.

ECU student Tina Vue assists resident Hilda Cullipher with the Bingo game.