Preschoolers and seniors plant seeds of friendship in University City

UNIVERSITY CITY — Like everything else this school year, the annual garden planting party at University City Children’s Center looked a little different during a pandemic. Scientists from the Danforth Plant Science Center weren’t invited to help out. Preschoolers wore masks as they planted seeds in the soil. There were certainly more squirts of hand sanitizer going around.

But vegetables and sunflowers will still sprout and bloom this summer, to the delight of the children growing up alongside them.

Best of all, they will have new friends to share in the bounty. The residents of Kingsland Walk senior living center next door to the preschool filled seed containers on Thursday that will also be transplanted in the next couple of months to a garden between the buildings.

“Once the seedlings are ready, they’ll come over and help take care of them with us,” said Laura Millkamp, director of the children’s center.

At least twice a week since the senior living center opened in September, the children have written letters and drawn pictures for their older pen pals, who send back letters and photos of themselves. The friends wave to each other when the kids are on the playground and the residents are on their balconies. For Halloween, the children put on a socially distanced costume parade in a shared parking lot.

“The children are learning not just cognitive things like letters, but love, empathy, joy, compassion, trust — living their values in real life,” Millkamp said. “All of us can learn from intergenerational experience. We learn how to help take care of each other.”

The garden planting party included the book “Eating the Alphabet” and discussions about worms with Tim Morgan, who teaches the 3- to 5-year-olds.

Charlotte Smith, 5, said she is most looking forward to meeting her pen pals Gene and Doris Palmisano, and sharing the cherry tomatoes they nurtured together.

“We’ll water them, and then they’ll grow; they turn into vegetables and fruits and flowers, and when you’re done picking them you wash them up so they’re fresh. And cut them up and eat them,” Charlotte said Thursday, as she and her classmates played in the soil on a tarp inside the preschool.

The eight residents at Kingsland Walk are scheduled to get their second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine later this month. By summer, they hope to rock the babies, read to the children and pick those tomatoes next door.

For now, the pen pals will continue sending messages across the parking lot.

“Right now my residents don’t really get to have much of the outside world, but even though we’re isolated they can start building that relationship,” said Emma Wray, the senior center’s residential services director.

Doris Palmisano, 75, said she didn’t realize there was a preschool next door when she and her husband moved into the senior living center last fall. Now they love getting cards and pictures from the children, even get-well-soon notes when Gene was sick in December. The couple’s three grandchildren are grown, she said.

“It was unexpected and very heartwarming to have that relationship. They each have their own little personality,” she said. “Charlotte writes her name so perfect. She’s a standout.”

When the sun shines and the virus fades, Charlotte and the Palmisanos will meet in the garden, and those cherry tomatoes will never taste so sweet.

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