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Originally published Monday, May 23, 2011 at 1:48 PM

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An unlikely pair of college buds

Heflin is 91 years old. His new friend, Yesica Sanchez, is 24.

Chicago Tribune

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CHICAGO — When John Heflin dropped off some CTA schedules at the apartment of his new neighbor from California, it marked the beginning of a friendship similar to those college students make in residence halls every year — with a few notable exceptions.

First, Heflin is 91 years old; at 24, his new friend, Yesica Sanchez could be his great-granddaughter.

And instead of a dorm, the unlikely pals met when Sanchez moved into the Oak Park Arms Retirement Community for a social work internship through Dominican University. School administrators hoped the experience — a first for the college in River Forest, Ill., and, school officials believe, possibly in the Chicago area — would give Sanchez an intimate look at life and operations in a senior home at a time when young people's interest in the field of geriatrics is waning.

But as Sanchez wraps up the nine-month program and prepares to return home to Los Angeles with her master's degree, she and Heflin are grateful that the experience gave them each something more.

"I think people forget that companionship is very important. Don't you think so, John?"

"I think so," Heflin said.

Heflin had lived a long life before moving into a fifth-floor unit at the retirement home on Oak Park Avenue. Born in Alabama and raised in Kentucky, he joined the Army and spent two years overseas during World War II as a corporal engineer in England, France, Belgium and Germany.

After the war, he followed relatives to Chicago, where he met his wife, Lorrain. The couple was married for 52 years and lived 30 of them in the same first-floor flat in a close-knit neighborhood in Douglas Park.

When Heflin's wife died in 2000, he got tired of caring for their six-room home by himself. A longtime neighbor and friend moved to the Oak Park senior home and encouraged Heflin to follow.

Heflin, who uses a cane to walk but otherwise gets along just fine, appreciated the retirement community's dining hall, organized social gatherings and, most of all, its friendly residents. So four years ago, he packed up his belongings and settled into an efficiency apartment in the complex.

"I've lived in buildings where you live across the hall and your neighbors don't speak to you and you don't speak to them," he said. "It's not like that here."

Sanchez, meanwhile, had no idea what she was committing to when she agreed to Dominican's pilot internship program.

She had never been to Chicago, much less to Oak Park, Ill. Other than a year on the East Coast, where she studied social work for a year at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., she'd mostly lived in California, close to her family.

But when Sanchez heard that Dominican offered a program that allowed students with a bachelor's degree in social work to earn a master's degree in one year, she thought it would be a great step toward her dream job as an administrator in a senior care setting.

And when Jesse Munoz, assistant dean and director of field education for Dominican's Graduate School of Social Work, told her she'd be perfect for a new internship program administrators had planned, she began packing her bags.

"We thought this was quite a unique opportunity," Munoz said. "You have a student intern who's going to be operating as a leader and living among the people one serves. She's literally available to see their challenges, their interactions, their adjustments and to see the services develop."

Over the course of the internship, Sanchez spent time in each department of Oak Park Arms, from marketing to shadowing the executive director, to operating the community's restaurant. She also took five traditional classes on the Dominican campus — about two miles from the Oak Park Arms.

Her busy schedule was dizzying to Heflin, who was having a leisurely cup of coffee with friends in the first floor lounge when Sanchez first arrived at the retirement community with suitcases and boxes ready to move in.

He tried to follow Sanchez's stories about her classes and other modern responsibilities, but couldn't always relate.

"It doesn't sink in much because everything is newer than when I went to school," he said. "They do everything with a computer. We did everything with a pencil."

Instead, the friends passed their spare time together by visiting the center's fitness center, where Sanchez would work out and Heflin would pretend to ride the exercise bike, just to appease her. They walked to nearby restaurants for lunch and took a dance class organized by the senior center.

By late October, Heflin and Sanchez were so close that he invited her to his brother-in-law's birthday party on Chicago's South Side. Sanchez was nervous at first, checking with her supervisors to make sure it wasn't breaking ethical code. They told her to go.

Heflin's family was so taken by his young friend, they invited her back for Thanksgiving.

A few days before Sanchez's graduation ceremony at Dominican University earlier this month, the residents of Oak Park Arms threw her a graduation party in their lounge, with wine, hors d'oeuvres and cake. Sanchez prepared a speech to avoid breaking down in grateful tears.

"It was a great learning experience. It was a great personal experience," Sanchez said. "I don't have the words to express how wonderful it was."

Munoz, the graduate school adviser, looked on proudly. Several students have already expressed interest in the live-in internship program for next year.

Dressed in a crisp white shirt perfectly tucked into slacks and a belt, Heflin watched Sanchez from across the room as dozens of partygoers approached with congratulations. Heflin and Sanchez had said their goodbyes a day earlier, sitting on the couch in his unit, his arm around her shoulder.

"I've been thinking about it, what am I going to do when I have nobody to pick on?" he asked.

Sanchez's answer was matter-of-fact.

"You can just call me," she said.

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