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Visitors Lighten Mood for Those Living Alone

March 9, 2006 By:
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For 81-year-old Estelle Cohen, who lives by herself in a small apartment in Northeast Philadelphia, life can be lonely. Her children and grandchildren are all grown up, and while she does regularly talk with her family, day to day she often finds herself alone.

When her doorbell rings on Thursday afternoons, however, Cohen knows she'll be in for a little excitement.

Since September, Chumie Yagod and Mirell Greenspan, both 15-year-old sophomores at Stern Hebrew High School, have been visiting her as part of a community-service program for school. Conversations with the girls - who wear trendy T-shirts, colorful bracelets and sport highlighted hair - provide Cohen with a breath of fresh air, unlike many of her talks with fellow seniors.

"I like youth," stated Cohen. "The older people and I, we don't seem to click. I have pains, too. I'm tired of hearing about their pains."

Interested in Conversation

The volunteer work with seniors is sponsored by the Rhawnhurst Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, a program supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Catholic Social Services, the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Mellon Bank.

Although the program initially sought to have students do minor manual labor - like help seal windows, change lightbulbs and perform other light tasks - the seniors were far more interested in the human contact with their young visitors.

"They're willing to do the lightbulbs, or help organize their refrigerators or closets or anything," said Rebecca Damsker, who coordinates Stern's service program, called Chesed ("Acts of Kindness"). "Then it turned out that the women just wanted someone to talk to."

At a visit last month, the girls took their familiar positions on the sofa and listened to an animated Cohen tell a rather comical story about her 34-year-old grandson, who recently put on weight, and how "he should wear a bra!"

"We call you the funny lady," said Greenspan playfully, after she and Yagod shared a laugh.

"Thanks a lot," said Cohen sarcastically. "Is that a compliment or an insult?"

The light atmosphere was put on hiatus a few minutes later as Cohen spoke to the girls about her first bout with anti-Semitism.

She explained that she once was chased home from school after being accused of "killing Christ."

"Those kids were young - like me - because we were all in grammar school. They had to be taught this," she said.

Greenspan responded by saying that "it's sad that people still experience that today."

Since the first half of Stern's school year recently came to an end, the two girls have been reassigned to a different project, making that February visit their last. Another set of students will take their place for the semester.

"We're going to come visit you, anyway," announced Greenspan, "because you're too funny."

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