April 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 2 // Ideas at Work // 2IAW3

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Utilizing Senior citizens to Teach Cultural Awareness in an Inclusive Classroom Setting

Extension is presented with an additional pool of senior volunteers as the population of older adults increases. Addressing a community need for cultural awareness programs for at-risk youth, a program was designed to engage senior citizen volunteers and at-risk youth in a chile ristra making project. The senior volunteers were taught the history and art of making chile ristras and in turn taught an inclusive classroom of fourth grade students. The techniques utilized by the volunteer coordinators can be used to teach a variety of cultural experiences in classroom settings using senior volunteers. As a result of the program, a continuing partnership was developed with Extension, the local school system, and the senior citizen center as collaborators

Betty J. Wells
Assistant Professor & Chair
Noble County
Ohio State University Extension
Caldwell, Ohio
Internet address: wells.10@osu.edu

Catherine A. Deppe
Extension Agent, 4-H/Youth Development
Defiance County
Ohio State University Extension
Defiance, Ohio
Internet address: deppe.1@osu.edu

Jaime X. Castillo
Department of Human & Community Resource Development
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
Internet address: castillo.14@osu.edu

Ken Culp, III
Assistant Professor, Extension Specialist, Volunteerism
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio
Internet address: culp.29@osu.edu

As the population of older adults increases, Extension is presented with an additional pool of senior volunteers. Older adults have skills and talents that have been relatively untapped by volunteer organizations. Gallup (1992) identified five under utilized volunteer audiences who were least likely to be asked to serve, but if asked were four times more likely to say "yes". These included Blacks, Hispanics, college students age 18 - 24, retirees age 65 and over, and those with household incomes of less than $12,000.

Volunteer administrators are well aware of the competitive struggle to recruit capable and qualified volunteers. This becomes an even larger obstacle in smaller communities. By utilizing senior citizens' talents and abilities, Extension can reach diverse audiences and provide a sense of belonging and accomplishment for older community members. With this in mind, graduate students from the Ohio State University Department of Agricultural Education turned to a group of senior citizens to provide a cultural experience to a non-traditional audience of fourth grade students. For this activity, the three graduate students became volunteer coordinators.

Two separate community needs were identified through a non- formal assessment. First, through discussion with school personnel, a need was identified for a cultural awareness program directed toward youth-at-risk. Secondly, senior citizens expressed a desire to become more involved with youth-oriented activities. As a result, a volunteer program was designed by the volunteer coordinators that would engage senior citizens and youth-at-risk in a socially interactive setting. The program involved senior citizens and youth in a chile ristra-making project. A ristra is a handspring rope of foods, primarily chiles or heads of garlic. Though ristras are used for decoration, many people let the chiles dry and use them in cooking (Tyler, 1997).

Senior volunteers were identified and recruited by the director of the Senior Center. Other screening criteria included whether the senior citizens were willing and able to work with children, were available for the orienting and training session, and for the classroom experience. An inclusive class (students who tested below standard academic scores) of fourth grade students was selected by the local elementary school principal as the audience for this cultural awareness experience.

The next critical stage in the project was to orient senior citizen volunteers. Volunteers were introduced to the program coordinators and oriented to their roles. The coordinators reviewed program objectives and expectations. The seniors were taught the history of the chile ristras and were exposed to new ideas regarding cultural awareness. A demonstration, which taught the art and skill of making chile ristras, was provided by the coordinators. Volunteers were motivated by the opportunity to learn a new skill, work with youth, and receive recognition. Volunteers became engaged in the project by teaching fourth grade students the history, art, and skill of ristra-making. Coordinators were on site to guide and support the senior volunteers.

The project was evaluated by: (a) number of senior citizens and students participating in the program; (b) the successful completion of individual chile ristras incorporating a variety of teaching methods for senior volunteers and youth learning styles; and (c) continuing partnerships between Extension, the local school system, and the senior citizen center.

At the conclusion of this experience, coordinators evaluated efforts of the senior volunteers and recognized them through a variety of methods. Recognition included thank you cards with photographs of the seniors working with the fourth grade participants, a feature article and photograph in the local newspaper, and a feature story broadcast by the local radio station.

This approach can be utilized to teach a variety of cultural experiences in classroom settings using senior volunteers. Examples may include making Indian bread, braiding, Indian sand painting, making flour and corn tortillas, tamales, fly tying, and cultural vegetable gardening. This project can be expanded to a variety of customs within any culture.


Gallup, G.H. (1992). The Gallup poll: Public opinion 1991, Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc.

Tyler, So. (1997). The food lover's companion (on-line). Available: http://www.epicurious.com/db/dictionary/terms/r/ristra.html