OCEAN PARK BLVD — Clara Kleinman was not sure she would have anything to offer a teenage girl.

Kleinman, 84, has lived what she described as a “weird” life, growing up during the Great Depression in a slum in St. Louis where she witnessed multiple stabbings, beginning to work when she was 12 by selling apples and leaving school after ninth grade. With her meager education and her lack of artistic talent, Kleinman was wary that she could have a positive impact on a teenager.

But after a five-week partnership where she and a teenager swapped life stories, Kleinman realized not only did she have sage advice to give, but she had something to learn from the girl, as well.

“I learned that despite the different ages, our generations feel much of the same anxiety,” she said.

Kleinman was a volunteer in the first Intergenerational Literature and Arts program that partnered volunteers from social services organization WISE & Healthy Aging with students at the continuation school, Olympic High School. The five-week class saw 11 pairs of senior citizens and teenagers share life stories, culminating this Friday with presentations of art projects representing what each person learned about his or her partner. The best presentation will receive an award at a later, yet-to-be-determined date.

The program is sponsored by the Santa Monica Bay Area Human Relations Council, which has previously hosted annual summer arts and literature competitions. After the council decided to restructure the competition, the chief executive officer of WISE & Healthy Aging, Grace Cheng Braun, suggested the intergenerational program, said Julia Kwei, the program facilitator at WISE & Healthy Aging.

Olympic High School agreed to participate because it is always looking for ways to expose students to the community, said Janie Gates, the principal of the school.

“We thought it was a great project for the students to learn what worked in the older people’s lives and what hurdles they’ve had to overcome,” Gates said.

The class focused on “branching points,” the idea of life changing moments, Kwei said. After a short lesson and a handful of prompting questions at the beginning of each class, the pairs spent the time getting to know each other and sharing stories.

“There was an amazing atmosphere,” Kwei said. “I think sometimes people come walking in with preconceived notions, but everyone was really respectful, and there was a feeling that there was a lot of potential in the room.”

From the shared stories, the students and senior citizens created presentations. The senior citizens tended to write short stories and poems, while the students mainly created collages of photos from their partners, Kwei said. Three judges will watch Friday’s presentations and name a winner.

Kleinman wrote a short story about what she learned from the student she worked with, Natalie LaBarbera. Despite Kleinman’s initial hesitation, she and LaBarbera connected, and was able to give LaBarbera advice that encouraged her to stay in school.

LaBarbera was having issues at home; her mother had a new boyfriend, which mostly left LaBarbera alone to fend for herself. When she confided her troubles in Kleinman, Kleinman drew on her own experiences growing up in a dangerous slum, but thriving later in life as an office manager and a controller of a production company to show that a person can overcome unsavory circumstances.

“I told her she’s not going to punish her mom by dropping at of school,” Kleinman said. “I said there are a lot of choices in life, and you can’t blame your background for bad choices, and I think that impressed her.”

The life lessons were reciprocated by the students, said Donald Murchie, one of the senior citizen volunteers. He said he learned differences are only on the surface.

“Spiritually, we have some of the same feelings,” Murchie said.


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