Jahangeer Khan remembers fondly his time with his Dadi (his paternal grandmother) and his Nani (his maternal grandmother), without whom he would know little of his family’s Pakistani cultural heritage. That experience inspired him to create a program for his Schweitzer Fellowship project that would bring young and old together. Partnering with the Kingsley House of New Orleans, Khan, a student at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, is bringing children of the Kingsley House’s Head Start program together with members of Kingsley House’s Adult Services program.
ASF: Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
JK: My inspiration for this project has to be my family, especially my Dadi (Father’s mother) and my Nani (Mother’s mother). When I was very young they would take time to teach me our language and customs. I was privileged to be in a loving environment and have them there to instill my family’s cultural values. While I was planning this project I reflected on how to bridge generational gaps in our community. Historically, many cultures often have three generations of people living under the same roof: grandparents, parents, and children. Unfortunately, this type of family unit has perceived antiquity; as a result, family connections are diminishing in societies across the world.
I wanted to help rekindle intergenerational contact in my community. Kingsley House was the perfect place to have a “Shared Site Intergenerational Program” because we had Adult Services and Head Start components under the same roof. This program involves joint activities where seniors are placed in a mentoring role for children and in return the children provide seniors with companionship. Parents are choosing to have children at younger ages; children of this generation may not have experience communicating with real elderly persons because their grandparents are much younger. Many families have been displaced in a post-Katrina era, resulting in grandparents living alone to manage a myriad of chronic diseases. These seniors have limited contact with their children and grandchildren who have settled in other states.
We are blessed to bring these two very different groups together. Feeling the change in the environment when the children walk in, and watching the participants interact is uplifting for everyone involved. When I scan the room and observe the MawMaw and PawPaw faces liven up all around, it humbles and inspires me.
ASF: What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
JK: I want to sew the fabric of this program into our New Orleans mosaic. Having a concentration in Health Policy & Systems Management has taught me the importance of integrating an idea into the culture of an organization to ensure longevity. This means gaining the hearts and minds of participants, staff, and stakeholders. Through repeated exposure we hope to make it regular protocol between Adult Services and Head Start. By reaching out to the greater intergenerational community we are seeking guidance in improving our design. We will train interns and staff on continuing this program for many years to come.
Children can learn from the seniors, and gain an understanding of their worth and importance in our community. As a staff member told me, “It’s like having another teacher.” Our vision is to diffuse programs such as this across Louisiana. We want to break down the segregation of our elderly folks and the ageist stereotypes that come with it. Ultimately, we want to foster bonds between these two groups.
ASF: What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
JK: One of the most important health issues facing our society is violence. Reading and watching about the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting is very painful and is another reminder of the urgent need to address violence. A tragedy that ended the lives of so many children who aren’t much older than the children I am serving. Our prayers go out to all of the families of the deceased. As Schweitzer Fellows, we need to investigate the root causes of why massacres such as this happen in the first place.
New Orleans has many good qualities, but I am ashamed to say that we have had the title of “murder capital of the country” for many years now. I want to believe that as humans we aren’t pre-programmed for violence. But a look back at our entire history is evidence that we are capable of being vicious, ruthless creatures. Of course we cannot stop all of the wars going on across the world overnight; wars are complicated and fought over greed, power and influence. However, I will remain idealistic and continue to dream of living in a safe and peaceful world.
ASF: What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?
JK: The most surprising aspect of my experience is the reception I have gotten for my project. I thought that young and old participants would be apprehensive about it, but I was wrong. As one MawMaw said, “It doesn’t matter what we do, as long as we’re together.” Words such as this are insightful for me. It refocuses my attention toward the intergenerational contact rather than the specifics of whatever activity we are doing. The attachment between these two groups that has since developed is certainly the most surprising theme. For example, during the last fire drill the children would want to run to the Senior Center to check that their older friends were okay. No one instructed them to do this; they did this on their own, instinctively. I think this kind of behavior speaks for itself.
ASF: What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately a Schweitzer Fellow for Life) mean to you?
JK: Being a Schweitzer Fellow is a prestigious honor I will cherish for a lifetime. It means applying the public health concepts I learned in the classroom in real-world situations. It means digging deep to find creative and innovative methods to fix our health care mess. It allows me to join my Fellows across the country in tackling the countless health care issues facing our society.
What brings the New Orleans Fellows together as a family is the shared love we have for the people we serve in our special community. Louisianans need programs such as the ones we are developing very badly. That is the fuel we use to stay diligent in our work. The Fellows for Life network will allow me to join a fraternity of brothers and sisters who share a common vision for the future of health care. Albert Schweitzer described it best, “The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.” Being a Fellow for Life will give my work purpose and transform me into a true public health steward.
Click here to learn more about the New Orleans Schweitzer Fellows Program and our work to develop leaders, create change, and improve health in vulnerable communities. We are supported entirely by charitable donations and grants.