SPRINGFIELD, VIRGINIA - Fredric Roi Marquez of Springfield, Virginia, was 15 years old when he joined a program to serve food to seniors at a nearby facility, and also to earn a scholarship. But the teen says the program gave him more than he expected — lessons he could use for the rest of his life.

After hours of training with his coworkers at Greenspring Retirement Community run by Erickson Living, Marquez learned that in order to be a good waiter, he should pay attention, be fast and patient.

“Then, once you start meeting with residents, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m doing this. I’m working!’” he said.

Before long, Marquez began to build a special relationship with the elderly residents, something especially meaningful to him because he lost most of his grandparents during childhood.

“I really don’t have that grandparent connection like what my classmates have,” he said. “So in this place, I call so many residents grandma and grandpa.”

Bringing positive energy

Roy and Lynn O’Connor, who moved to Greenspring 12 years ago, like the atmosphere these young people bring to the community.

“They come after school. And when you think about it, to go have your dinner being served at night by young people who are enthusiastic, polite and considerate to older people, it’s just a great atmosphere,” Roy said.

Roy noted that many of the students are treated like family members. He said the teens keep residents updated on their lives; school projects, exams, even family issues. They share their dreams and often seek the seniors’ advice.

Lynn said the students genuinely care about the residents.

“I remember one day in the dining room, one of the ladies was hard of hearing, and the young person got down on his knees to kind of show the lady what was on the menu and help her. Very, very caring and kind and loving. We’re like grandparents to them,” she said.

Benefits, both ways

Greenspring is one of dozens of senior living communities in America that are encouraging residents to socialize more with young people, something experts say will benefit both generations.

So far, about 4,500 students have taken part in the program at three facilities run by Erickson Living in the Washington, D.C., area.

Erickson Living spokesperson Courtney Benhoff said that since the program started 20 years ago, it has offered participating students a chance to win scholarships.

“Thirty-one students will receive scholarships this year. Each one will receive $10,000 in scholarship money over the course of four years in college,” she said.

Marquez is one of this year’s winners.

Benhoff said residents help raise the money to fund the program.

“The residents love this scholarship program because it gives them the opportunity to support these young people that have made their lives more meaningful,” she said.

Residents choose the students eligible for scholarships.

“Once they apply, they are good to go,” said Sally Pritchett, one of the residents who helps select the scholarship winners. “We interview them. I interview each one of them. They are just great, great kids.”

Residents look forward to the energy they bring, Pritchett said.

“You’ve gotten this grandparent-student relationship, which is wonderful. You see them you lighten up,” she said.

In return, the students learn priceless lessons in life.

“(The program) taught me compassion and empathy toward other people,” Marquez said. “I try to see how (it is) to be in their shoes.”

Marquez added that his scholarship will help him pursue a career as a social worker, but the experience (at Greenspring) will impact him forever.