Second-grader Nathan Frisch loves spending time with his new friend, Kathy Canniff. They play games, talk about their favorite things and practice reading together, but mostly they just like “having fun,” Frisch said.
And their age difference — more than half a century — doesn’t seem to hold them back.
That’s the whole point of SPIFF, or Special Pals in Fun Friendships, a program that pairs second-graders at Somerset Heights Elementary in Mendota Heights with older adults ranging in age from their 50s to 90s.
Now in its 25th year, the program fosters intergenerational friendships, bringing the adults to school once a month for fun activities with their pals, like moonlight bowling in the gym, art projects or caroling.
They also write letters to each other to keep in touch, and they go on a museum field trip in the spring.
“It’s a really neat program,” said Liz Eul, a second-grade teacher. “The pals do such a good job making them feel special.”
The idea for SPIFF came to second-grade teacher Alex Messicci 25 years ago, during his first year teaching at Somerset.
“I was inspired by my father, who was a musician,” Messicci said. “He visited senior centers and nursing homes and he brought joy and music to the residents.
“And strangers became friends,” he said.
The program introduces second-graders to people who have had different life experiences than them, Messicci said.
“It opens up the classroom, since the four walls can close in sometimes,” he said. “This breathes fresh air into it.”
Canniff said she has wanted to be a SPIFF pal ever since the program began. At that time, she was a secretary at Somerset and vowed that when she retired, she would do it.
“You know your grandparents, but you don’t necessarily know all older people,” she said. “We learn from each other. It’s a good thing.”
The adults are recruited from several sources, including 3M CARES, a volunteer program for retired 3M employees, local churches and DARTS, a nonprofit connecting seniors with community resources. Other pals are students’ grandparents, Eul said.
Some of the adults have been a part of SPIFF for years, she said.
Bigger than ever
This year’s SPIFF cohort is the largest ever, with 99 kids and almost as many adults, Eul said.
Over the years, SPIFF has resulted in 1,700 intergenerational friendships, and many of the pals still stay in touch.
Millie Gignac, now 93, has been a SPIFF pal for 13 years. She’s still friends with her first pal, now in college. She loves “just getting to know the children,” she said.
“I think the biggest thing is writing the letters back and forth. Writing to me is a lost art — everybody e-mails now and it just breaks my heart.”
Dianne Hueller is in her sixth year as a pal. She still hears from her first child, now a 13-year-old, and occasionally gets together with another pal. She keeps a folder of all the letters and projects she’s completed with the kids, she said.
Kids learn to relate
Barb Richter, a parent and Somerset volunteer, has had two older children participate in SPIFF, in addition to her daughter Gianna, who is in second grade. She said the program helps kids learn how to relate to older people.
“I think it’s special for them to find, ‘Wow, there are other adults who are interested in me,’ ” she said.
“I love SPIFF,” she said. “When they get together and they sing … and you hear the older adults and the kids’ voices, there’s a lot of tears on people’s faces, including mine.”
What’s the program’s secret to lasting so long? Part of it is Messicci, who “has got it down to a fine art now,” Eul said.
“I guess the success speaks for itself,” Eul said. “The kids love it, the adults come back year after year. I think the adults get as much out of it as the little ones do.”