As the Brunswick delegation of Sweet Readers boarded our flight for London on June 12th, we knew that we were headed for a week of intense facilitator and student training intermingled with sightseeing and trips to the theater, but we could not know the strength of the partnership we would develop with the new Sweet Readers at the Alleyn’s School in Dulwich.
Sitting around the table during our first meeting in England with Karen and Sophie, it was clear that we were each a bit nervous about exactly how we would add to the training process. While both Erin and I have been Sweet Readers facilitators for three years and have worked closely with Karen and Sophie, we had never actually trained a group before. Hayden and Ryan, now Brunswick sophomores, had not participated in a program since their eighth grade year, and while enthusiastic about the opportunity to be part of this pilot program, were also a bit nervous about their role within this training group.
After twenty minutes around the kitchen table in Knightsbridge, however, our fears began to subside. Listening to Karen discuss the research she wanted to use to introduce the nature of Alzheimer’s and then watching the video Sophie and the young leaders created to show the impact of the Sweet Readers program was all we needed to remind ourselves of the incredible sense of purpose and connection that comes from being part of this special organization. As we talked through the top ten tips and decided which of us would focus on and explain each, our collective excitement grew, and we were eager to get to training day.
Tuesday morning arrived and each of us spent some time releasing nervous energy: Erin and I walked in Hyde Park, Ryan ran to Kensington Palace, and Hayden went to the hotel gym. While we felt prepared for training day at Alleyn’s School, we also felt the responsibility of being part of this first international pilot program. We wanted our part of the training to be effective and to help our partners at Alleyn’s understand the necessity of the program they were joining.
Our taxi ride to Alleyn’s was scenic as we passed Buckingham Palace and Parliament on our way to Dulwich. Pulling onto the school campus, we were struck by the brick buildings, the grass tennis courts, and the cricket pitches (which both Hayden and Ryan were eager to experience). We were made to feel at home quickly by both the faculty and students and settled into a middle school history classroom to start the training.
The hustle of the hallways felt familiar and the school setting made us all feel more comfortable. As we met Natalie, Brendan, Nicholas, and Megan, the teachers training to be Sweet Readers facilitators, it was easy to see that they were eager to learn and experience the kind of service and connection that Sweet Readers would help them to cultivate. Their enthusiasm fed our own, and the training session flowed from research to video to the facilitator tips. As Erin and I discussed the importance of knowing when to step in and when to step away, we realized that our three years of Sweet Readers experience did in fact fuel us with the confidence necessary to teach these new facilitators how to best support their students during the programs.
Paired up with their teachers, we shared stories about our families and created a common tale about a journey – where we would go and what we would take. In practicing the questions we would use with the elder partners later in the day, we were learning the life stories of our Alleyn’s partners and already feeling the joy of finding common ground with others. Our morning of training was off to a powerful start.
As the Alleyn’s students arrived for their portion of the training, Sophie, Hayden, and Ryan took over. Watching these leaders introduce the program and then take turns setting up the role playing scenarios reminded us of one of the many strengths of the Sweet Readers program: trusting students to take the lead and helping them to believe that they can have a powerful impact on the life of another.
The Alleyn’s School students, Anna, Hanna, Mabel, Alfie, Bede, and Matthew, all members of the Year Seven class, listened carefully as our older students explained the kinds of situations they might face with their elder partners during the program: repetition of questions, resistance to sharing, or insecurity about participating. The more the Alleyn’s students practiced different scenarios and critiqued each other’s actions and reactions under the guidance of Sophie, Hayden, and Ryan, the more the younger students clearly started to understand the importance of “finding the person behind the disease.” After an intense morning of training and a quick lunch, our Sweet Readers team was ready to venture across Dulwich to Castlebar.
The adaptability discussed during our morning session was quickly in play as there were both last minute resident switches and room changes upon our arrival at Castlebar. Karen organized the Alleyn’s students, reminded them of their ten tips, and led them into the dining room to meet their partners. With beaming faces, the six Sweet Readers introduced themselves to their partners and put all of their training immediately into action. As we walked through the room to ensure that the students felt supported and were effectively engaged with their partners, it became clear that they understood their reasons for being in the room and in the moment. The Alleyn’s School team, both facilitators and students, appeared comfortable, connected, and as if they had been running programs for much longer than their one day of experience.
Having participated in three years of training and programs, I couldn’t help but reflect on the power of this intense and very special day. To help this Alleyn’s group move from initial training all the way through their first program in just one day bonded our group in a special way.
The smiles at the end of the day served as final proof that Sweet Readers builds community for all who participate. The residents of Castlebar could not wait for their young friends to return the next day. The Alleyn’s students were proud of their ability to connect with their Castlebar partners and to help them engage in the projects. The Alleyn’s teachers were impressed by the poise and grace of their young students as they found common ground with the elders. Our Brunswick delegation was energized by the opportunity to share our experience with the program and to feel part of this new community an ocean away from our school home in Connecticut.
The following Sunday as we boarded our flight to return to New York, we were tired from an intensive week of training and touring the sights of London, but we were energized by our connection to our new Sweet Readers partners in Dulwich and endlessly grateful for the opportunity to help build the first international community.