South Orangetown Central School District

On Wednesday, South Orangetown Middle School seventh-grade ELA and eighth-grade Studio Art students presented senior residents of Dowling Gardens with letters and personalized artwork, as part of the Memoirs in a Bottle community project. Works created this year will be on public display in the Central Office Gallery at South Orangetown Middle School; an opening reception will be held on Thursday, April 4, 4-6pm.

“This is truly a celebration of community, connecting the generations through inspiration and creativity…a rare opportunity for both students and the senior members of our society to be empowered to tell their stories and have a voice,” said retired SOMS teacher Arlene Sorensen, who created the project and received an ArtsWestchester Arts Alive Education grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to support its implementation.

Through interviews, letter-writing, and art-making, 150 SOMS students partnered with residents of Dowling Gardens to celebrate each senior’s story. One group of seventh-graders in ELA teacher Colleen Henry’s classes drafted letters based on their interviews with seniors last month. The letters were shared with Studio Art students in Allison Meyers and Tatiana DiPierno’s classes, who created painted personalized bottles for each resident representing fond memories they had shared. In return, another group of Ms. Henry’s ELA students wrote letters, sharing some of their own memories.

Whether they participated as writers or artists, Memoirs in a Bottle had a significant impact on students. “It was wonderful to bring letter-writing into this project,” noted Ms. Henry. “They’ve read thousands of texts, but many of my students said that they’d never received a letter or postcard before.” Art teachers Allison Meyers and Tatiana DiPierno expressed that “the project was a meaningful opportunity for students to experience art as a powerful means for connecting people of all backgrounds and generations.”

Ben, a seventh-grader, was inspired to learn how his senior penpal, Anthony, got his first job at age 19 after emigrating from Italy. “At school, we learn social studies,” said Ethan, also a seventh-grader. “But we’re actually hearing about history from someone who lived it.”

“It was so inspirational to hear about all your stories and experiences,” Cara, an eighth-grader, told the Dowling Garden residents. “By learning about you, I feel like I’ve gained a better understanding and feel connected to you.”

Dowling Gardens Activity Director and retired SOMS art teacher Beth Dougherty quoted Vincent Van Gogh. “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!,’” she remarked. “If you made your own bottle, what would you want it to be about? Think about the lives our seniors have had and maybe it’ll help you think about the life that you want to create for yourself.”

Two female students with senior woman