South Orangetown Central School District

A group of South Orangetown Middle School seventh-graders in Colleen Henry’s ELA classes traveled to Dowling Gardens on Wednesday to speak with senior residents as part of Memoirs in a Bottle, an interdisciplinary community project.

Through interviews, letter-writing, and art-making, SOMS students are working with seniors to tell their life stories. The students who participated in the visit will draft letters from the seniors based on their interviews to share with eighth-grade Studio Art students, who will use paint and collage techniques to create personalized keepsakes for each resident. Another group of Ms. Henry’s ELA students will receive and respond to those letters and meet their senior penpal next month.

“In class, students were exposed to literature in which the dominant themes are empathy and generations coming together and effective interviewing skills to prepare them for their visit,” explained Ms. Henry. “This was a life-changing experience because we can introduce our youth to these ideas through stories, but it takes real connections to transform them. On Wednesday, we witnessed a transformation.”

The project is meaningful to residents, too. “Connections with students always lift our residents’ spirits. This project is social and gets them talking about their lives,” noted Dowling Gardens Activity Director Beth Dougherty, a retired SOMS art teacher. “Sharing oral histories has helped us learn about our residents, and helped residents learn about each other.”

This is the second year for the Memoirs in a Bottle project, which is coordinated by retired SOMS teacher Arlene Sorensen. Ms. Sorensen was recently awarded an Arts Alive Education grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to help underwrite this year’s project. “This project is all about love and community, sharing and listening,” she said.

SOMS Principal Dr. Chad Corey was impressed by what he observed during the visit. “We thank Ms. Sorensen, Ms. Dougherty and Ms. Henry for providing this opportunity to our students. We are extremely fortunate to have partners in the community such as Dowling Gardens,” he said.

Student listening to senior citizen talking at table