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PHOTOS: South Surrey students, senior forge unexpected connection during pandemic

Don Stewart, 89, became a ‘Grandfriend’ to Ellen Petersson’s young ’Forest Explorers’

The story of ‘Grandfriend’ Don, chocolate Lab Finnegan and a class of Ray Shepherd Elementary children is one that can’t help but warm the heart – and maybe evoke a tear or two.

It all began last fall, when Don Stewart – who, at 89, is mostly-retired from a nearly 60-year career as a doctor – would encounter Ellen Petersson’s kindergarten/Grade 1 students during his walks with Finnegan through the Bell Park forest, located just down the street from the South Surrey school.

“We always happened to be at the forest at the same time as this older gentleman with beautiful white hair, this smile that lit up the forest and this beautiful dog, Finnegan,” Petersson said.

The children, who could sense that Finn was an older fellow himself, would delight in saying hello and learning more about the gentle canine, and Stewart was always thrilled to answer their questions.

Little did Stewart, Petersson or the children know at the time just how great an impact these encounters would have, or that they would evolve into incredible teaching moments and create cherished memories during a time when so much was out of reach due to the restrictions of a worldwide pandemic.

READ MORE: ‘We really had to change everything’: Surrey schools continue to adapt to COVID-19 changes

Petersson said teachers in the spring of 2020 were encouraged to immerse their students in the outdoor classroom at every opportunity, as a way of making the most of those restrictions.

In previous years, she’d made a habit of weekly visits to the forest with her young charges, teaching them to appreciate nature and learn through exploring. It’s what the original owners of the land had wanted when they donated it as a park, she noted.

So, “when we got to school (last fall) and we were given our guidelines on what we could do and what we weren’t going to be able to do in the same way, I decided that I needed to just get them to the forest every single day for our learning, and we could take our books and our journals and we could do science,” Petersson said. “If it was pouring rain, we looked for slugs and worms, and if it was beautiful out, we’d sit and draw and have stories, or we could paint.”

The children – who Petersson called her ‘Forest Explorers’ – used magnifying glasses to explore the forest’s finer details, practised colour-matching, and collected rocks and sticks and pine cones. They drew pictures of trees and the wagon that carried their supplies along the forest paths, they drew pictures of themselves and, as their encounters with Finnegan and Stewart continued, they drew pictures of the gentle pair.

Stewart, they learned, had many connections to Ray Shepherd Elementary. His own grandchildren attended the school and, over those years, he would attend their Christmas concerts and other functions. His daughter, Desiree Stevens, would help with their music program.

It only made sense, then, that Stewart would be invited when Petersson’s class recorded a song in the forest for their own Christmas concert.

It was after Christmas that Petersson officially invited Stewart to become a ‘Forest Explorer.’ She had reached out to him before school reopened after the winter break to check in, and heard back from Stevens that 15-year-old Finnegan’s time had come.

Stevens told Petersson that her dad wanted the kids to have a chance to say their last hello.

“We’ve talked about loss,” Petersson said, noting some of her students had lost pets and grandparents that school year already.

After explaining what was happening, Petersson was warmed by her students’ reactions, including one who said, “he’s going to need us… we need to share our smiles with him, we need to bring him joy.”

The trek to the forest that day was, fittingly, through the pouring rain, and when they arrived, Finnegan, as always, was waiting.

The students quietly lined up, taking turns “putting their little hands on his head.”

“The just talked to him gently and they touched his ears, and then they just moved away so somebody else could come up.”

It was a “gut-wrencher,” Stevens said.

While Petersson didn’t know if they’d see Stewart after that, they were thrilled to find him waiting at the forest the next day – and every day after that.

Petersson, a teacher since 1987, knows the importance of connecting kids and seniors. Twelve years ago, while teaching at James Ardiel Elementary, she started an intergenerational program in which her students would do art every couple weeks with seniors at a dementia-care facility. At Ray Shepherd pre-COVID, she took her students to Westminster House for a year, then to Evergreen Baptist.

Not being able to carry on those visits was one of the biggest hits of the pandemic, Petersson said.

“It’s so important for children to be connected with the elderly and with seniors in the community and with grandparents.

READ MORE: Youth and seniors learn from each other

“Seniors are so like the kids, where seniors are told what to do, when to do it and how to do it… it’s a very parallel relationship, but they need each other.”

Stewart – who Stevens noted was a pioneer in integrative medicine, reportedly described by some as ‘living legend’ – said seeing the students’ joy and compassion has “been a real inspiration to me.”

“We learn from each other,” he said. And, “when I didn’t have the dog anymore, having the kids there, that helped me a lot.”

It’s a story that also captured the hearts of the B.C. Retired Teachers’ Association, which named Petersson’s Forest Explorers program – as well as that of fellow Ray Shepherd teacher Lisa Tomé – among four to receive its Golden Star Award this year; a $1,500 grant that celebrates “their dedication to excellence in intergenerational programming.”

The award was presented June 1, on Intergenerational Day.

“During the pandemic, the selected programs were key in combating the loneliness and isolation experienced by many seniors. Students benefited in important ways and, amongst many other attributes, developed empathy and an appreciation for the wisdom of seniors,” information on the association’s website states.

Petersson said words cannot express how special the relationship was that Stewart fostered with her students.

“I believe in the power of connection and I believe in intergenerational relationships,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any comparison to what this year has provided.

“What has happened so organically, we had gone from going to visit grandfriends once a month to having one grandfriend every single day who had chosen us.

“He is joy.”
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Tracy Holmes

About the Author: Tracy Holmes

Tracy Holmes has been a reporter with Peace Arch News since 1997.
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