Art is opening minds and bringing generations together in Kitchener, thanks to the dedication and passion of students, teachers and facilitators. The efforts of Lillian Hyatt, a Grade 9 Forest Heights Collegiate Institute student, in particular, have garnered special attention. At the 22nd Annual Kitchener Youth Action Council Awards, Hyatt won the Intergenerational Award for demonstrating a commitment to the belief that generations can and should be united for her work with the Opening Minds through Art (OMA) program at Trinity Village Care Centre.

Hyatt with the award she won for her time volunteering with Opening Minds through Art.

For the past two semesters, Hyatt has been volunteering with the OMA program, which partners her up with a resident at Trinity Village who has dementia or other forms of neurocognitive disorders. For nine weeks, they meet on Wednesdays after school and create art together.

Kathryn Bender is a recreationist and the lead OMA facilitator at Trinity Village. She explained the program started four years ago with students from Eastwood Collegiate Institute and has expanded to include students from Forest Heights. The last OMA class was the largest they have had so far, with 24 students from both ECI and FHCI. “The students are really interested in this program,” said Bender.

The OMA program originated at Miami University in Ohio and Trinity Village is the only facility in Ontario that offers it. Developed by Dr. Elizabeth Lokon in 2007, the aim of the program, Bender explained, is to promote dignity and choice for residents, while building intergenerational relationships between students and residents. It fosters a symbiotic relationship where the student inspires the resident, and the resident inspires the student.

You could see the results of their relationship in action with Hyatt and the resident she worked with, Mary. Bender explained that Mary was often focused on negative aspects of life in her conversations with family members before her experience with Hyatt, but things changed quickly. Mary’s son began remarking to Bender that he was noticing she was excited and positive during their phone calls, and often spoke at length about Hyatt and their time together. “Lillian touched a piece of her heart,” said Bender.

Hyatt noticed the impact her efforts were having, too. She first met Mary in October 2018, and saw that although she was nervous during their early sessions together, Mary got more relaxed as the weeks went by, and grew increasingly excited to see Hyatt at each session. “It made me feel really happy,” said Hyatt. “It made me happy, that I was making her happy.”

Mary wasn’t the only one benefitting from her experience with OMA though, as Hyatt also noticed herself growing more confident in her abilities and leadership skills. She describes herself as a generally quiet person, but her time at OMA opened her up to new opportunities at school that she may have otherwise passed up. Hyatt signed up for track and field in the fall, having initially debated whether or not she wanted to take that leap. “I wasn’t going to join at the beginning of the semester, but I thought ‘just go for it,’” said Hyatt. “It really opens you up.”

Hyatt helps Mary as she works on another masterpiece during a session of Opening Minds through Art at Trinity Village.

Thinking back to when she first heard about the OMA program in her art class, Hyatt is amazed at the experience she has had and all that she has learned. It’s clear her enthusiasm was contagious, as a number of her friends joined in the second semester after seeing how much she was enjoying it. “Hopefully next time I do it, I will get a lot more,” said Hyatt with a laugh.

For students considering taking part in a program like OMA, she has one simple message. “I think they should go for it,” she said. “It may seem a little bit scary at first, but in reality there’s nothing to stress about.” The residents, facilitators and all those involved, Hyatt explained, are exceptionally kind and make the experience one students shouldn’t miss out on.

(From left) OMA Facilitators, Judy McKnight, Andrea Morneau and Kathryn Bender, stand with art on display at Trinity Village created by residents in the OMA program.

Winning the KYAC award was never part of Hyatt’s plan. She was pleasantly surprised to hear she had even been nominated by her English teacher, Allison Schiedel. “It was really nice that I got nominated,” said Hyatt. “I was kind of shocked, honestly.” When it came to awards night, Hyatt was just happy to be there, and didn’t predict winning. As luck would have it, Hyatt was wrong, and she was the first one called up on stage for the evening. “My stomach dropped and I think I turned pale,” she said with a quiet laugh, describing her reaction to hearing her name called.

Although she is just finishing up Grade 9, and is still unsure of where exactly her career aspirations lie, Hyatt explains that her experience with OMA has certainly opened her up to the idea of working with those who have dementia or other forms of neurocognitive disorders, as she has now experienced first-hand how rewarding it can be.

Schiedel couldn’t be prouder of Hyatt and all that she has accomplished through her volunteer work with OMA, especially the positive changes she has made in Mary’s life. “I was really proud of her when Kathy [Bender] told me that,” said Schiedel. When she came across the KYAC Award in the Intergenerational category, Hyatt immediately came to mind and nominating her was a no-brainer. “I thought, definitely, Lillian is a good candidate for that award,” said Schiedel.

The experience for all the students involved has been a rewarding one, Schiedel explained. They have the opportunity to learn more about themselves and their own capabilities, but most importantly, they have a chance to see the positive impact they can have on someone’s life. “They get their volunteer hours, which is great, but I think they take a lot more away from it,” said Schiedel. “I think it’s a really meaningful experience.”

Although Hyatt has completed more than her required 40 volunteer hours, she won’t be leaving the OMA program behind. She plans on returning in the fall of 2019 to continue volunteering with the program, and she’s aiming to continue working with her favourite artist. “Hopefully I get Mary again,” said Hyatt. “It just makes me feel good that I’m making someone’s day through art.”

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