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Young Artists Offer Seniors Better View

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is one of the top 5 places for baby boomers to retire, according to a recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons. Many seniors cite the picturesque river walks and affordable living, but for one group of Milwaukee seniors, there is an additional reason: a gift of artistry and caring from a group of high school students.

The Berkshire, an independent-living residence for active seniors, is surrounded by beautiful trees and sidewalks to encourage walking. But a few months ago, the parklike view was disturbed by an ugly gray block wall.

"The wall was here before the building was here," Sandy Griesemer, Berkshire apartments manager, says. She explains the wall was not visible before.

"There used to be a school in this building, and it was tight to this building that was next door to us," she says. "And when they tore that down to build a new facility, this wall was exposed and it didn't look good."

Griesemer says residents whose windows faced north were unhappy with their new view, so she decided to do something to change that.

"I happened to know the high school teacher, Mrs. Robertson," she says. "I called and asked her if she would be interested in having some students do a mural on there."

Though she was extremely busy with end of the school year activities, Leah Robertson, the art teacher at Oconomowoc High School, wanted to help. So she turned to one of her best students and proposed a summer project.

"Travis Lewis was the first person that really came to my mind because of a variety of skills that he has," Ms. Robertson says. "I talked to him about it. And he said he would be interested in doing it.

Lewis, a 17-year old senior, decided to create a 4-meter high, 12-meter wide mural of a French garden.

"I went through town and looked at some of the gardens of the local residents," he says. "Some of my friends have really nice gardens. So I went and took some photos of their gardens." Lewis considered the mural a tribute to his grandfather who is dealing with Alzheimer's. "I added a piece from his garden, which is a little wall on the lower right side of the mural".

With Robertson's help, Lewis recruited a group of 10 students to work with him on the mural. Erika Reinders was part of the team.

"I helped a lot with the color blocking, which is the first step that he took on the mural, blocking the colors with just a solid color before you go back and put in the details. It was a lot of fun," she says.

Art teacher Leah Robertson says this project taught her students valuable lessons that they would probably never get in the classroom.

"Number one, it gives them confidence," she explains. "Number two, it makes them see that they can dream big on a larger scale that what you normally do on an 18 by 12 [inch] sheet of paper. With Travis in particular, I think, it was fantastic to orchestrate the leadership. He did an awesome job, very positive, very supportive of the team."

Creating the French garden mural took three weeks. Building manager Sandy Griesemer says the students brought a lot of excitement to the facility during that time.

"The initial process was setting up the scaffolding. Everybody chipped in, from the teacher to the students," she says. "It was fun to be there on a daily basis and see the progress. Some days there would be 8 students, and some days it was just Travis sitting up there all by himself with his boom box listening to music. This was really a hot summer and I felt very bad for them out there, but they really did a good job. They were cooperative and very respectful of the residents."

Many of those residents, like Dan Lester, 79, say they enjoyed watching the students work on the mural and talking to them.

"I didn't think it was going to be as nice as it is really," he says. "Everybody enjoys it. They sure do because it's added quite a lot especially to that apartment down at the end where it looked at the wall. Now, it's beautiful."

Sandy Griesemer agrees, and says the French garden mural has definitely helped enhance the surroundings. More importantly, she adds, it will always be a reminder that a group of young people in the community put in the time and effort to present this gift to their seniors.