SRU students help older adults help the homeless


Second from left, Slippery Rock University students Gabrielle Cunningham and, far right, Rosemary Franklin help residents at the Home 2 Me assisted-living facility in Slippery Rock gather items for care packages that will be distributed to homeless people in Pittsburgh.

Second from left, Slippery Rock University students Gabrielle Cunningham and, far right, Rosemary Franklin help residents at the Home 2 Me assisted-living facility in Slippery Rock gather items for care packages that will be distributed to homeless people in Pittsburgh.

Nov. 22, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — A class project for three Slippery Rock University students resulted in an unlikely connection between two groups of disadvantaged people, giving a sense of purpose for older adults confined in a home to care for people who don't have a home.

The story begins in the Recreational Therapy for Older Adults class taught by Betsy Kemeny, associate professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy. As part of their service-learning projects, students in the class conduct research and develop interventions for older adults by working with staff at Orchard Manor nursing home in Grove City, Home 2 Me assisted-living facility in Slippery Rock and the Quality Life Services continuing care community in Chicora.

Nearly all of the students in two sections of the senior-level course are recreational therapy majors, but Brianna Dillon, a senior health science-public health major from Shelocta, took the class to fulfill her minor in gerontology. Dillon and two classmates, Rosemary Franklin, a senior dual recreational therapy and dance major from Milan, Michigan, and Gabrielle Cunningham, a senior recreational therapy major from Tarentum, were tasked with creating an intervention that addressed older adults' changing life roles as a result of being in a care facility. Other student groups addressed issues affecting older adults that included cardiovascular health, fall prevention and cognitive abilities.

"When you work with older adults you could be working with people with physical or mental disabilities," Kemeny said. "It requires a comprehensive level of understanding. Older adults, because they are retired or they may have lost a spouse or are living in a care community, often don't have the same roles they once had. There's a lot of research coming out about how we need to address social isolation, loneliness and lack of roles."

As Dillon, Franklin and Cunningham researched life roles, they focused their intervention on volunteerism. Although more than 70% of U.S. adults ages 55-64 or 65 and older do not volunteer, the students discovered through research that volunteer activities "improve older adults' knowledge and competency; health and well-being; cognitive and intellectual stimulation; and social capital."

"We thought a good thing to focus on was giving older adults a sense of purpose and immediately we thought of volunteering," Dillon said. "It makes people feel good to serve other people and feel purposeful, but then we thought, 'We're college students; we can't take these people out of the nursing home and have them weed a flower bed in a park or volunteer at a community library. What are we going to do?'"



Dillon, who is a service team leader for Rock Catholic, a faith-based student organization at SRU, then thought about The Red Door, a ministry program operated by the St. Mary of Mercy Catholic Church in downtown Pittsburgh. The Red Door is supported by people throughout the region, including Rock Catholic and St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in Slippery Rock. The program, which dates back to the Great Depression when food was delivered to homeless people via a red door alongside the St. Mary of Mercy church, is currently open for two hours per day, six days a week, and provides homeless people with food, clothing and other donated supplies.

"I knew from my experience at Rock Catholic that we had parishioners make things to hand out at the Red Door and I thought, 'How cool would it be if we can connect all these people?,'" Dillon said. "So we decided to have (the older adults) pack bags and explain how they are helping the homeless."

The three SRU students then worked with staff at Orchard Manor and Home 2 Me to identify a group of 25 older adults from the two facilities who wanted to participate. The residents packed supplies that included food and personal hygiene products, as well as "identity boards," which are collages of images selected by the residents that represent who they are so the homeless recipient can feel a connection to them.

"We want (the bag recipients) to know who these are from," Dillon said. "A lot of them were smiling and saying how fun it is (to made the bags and identity boards)."

"(The success of this project) has to do with how you facilitate it and talk about it," Kemeny said. "It can't just be a task; you have to talk about how it's going to help people. We've set it up for them so they can feel productive.

"This was a student-generated intervention based on the needs of two different groups in the community. It was really exciting to see how much the students learned and what they got from the experience."

Supplies were provided by donations from Rock Catholic, parishioners at St. Peter's and through a $300 mini-grant from the SRU Office for Community-Engaged Learning, which provides funding for service-learning courses taught by designated faculty practitioners of High Impact Practice for Service-Learning. HIPs, identified by the Association of American College and Universities, are widely tested to show a benefit to students through active learning. The OCEL supports HIP-designated faculty service-learning practitioners whose classes are shaped by reciprocal engagement with community partners and learning outcomes supported through continuous, structured and guided reflection.

"This project is a great example of the 'win/win/win' that results from acquiring HIP designation for service-learning," said Jeffrey Rathlef, director of the OCEL. "This designation serves students by making service-learning visible during class registration and empowers them to make informed choices regarding time commitments and applied experiences. It also serves faculty with professional development and additional resources. Community partners benefit as they seek out partnerships with faculty who are HIP (service-learning) designated."

The "win" for the community partners in this instance extends not only to residents at Orchard Manor and Home 2 Me but also for the homeless people in Pittsburgh.

"The most transformative part for me was personally handing out the bags," said Dillon who took two trips to the Red Door Program site to distribute more than 25 bags. "You have all these people coming up to you who don't have food and don't have any place to go and as soon as you give them something they are just the most grateful people that you'll ever meet. It's incredible. Everyone needs to experience that. Homeless ministry is very powerful."

SRU students seeking more information about Rock Catholic can visit its CORE page by clicking here. SRU faculty seeking more information about HIP Service Learning designation and OCEL mini-grants can contact Rathlef at 724.738.4764 or For more information about the recreational therapy program at SRU, click here.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |