When they first heard of "adopting" grandparents from the nursing home across the street, several students at Hearst Elementary School were nervous.
"You didn't know what they (the residents) would look like -- whether they'd be blind, deaf or unable to walk," said Thomas Wilbur, 11. Despite their concern, the students held an introductory meeting in February with residents of The Washington Home, an institution that for many years was isolated from its upper Northwest neighborhood.
And for the occasion, 35 of the home's residents, most of them victims of incurable and progressively debilitating diseases, dressed up. "There was a buzz, a stir, anticipation in the air. Some asked if their 'grandchildren' would like them," remembers Jill Shatkin, head of volunteers for the home, at 3710 Upton St. NW.
Three months later, mention of the honorary grandparent program -- in which the students and home residents meet regularly -- prompts stories of an 11-year-old girl warning home officials in time to prevent an elderly resident from choking on an orange peel; a "grandchild" discovering the initials of a resident carved about 80 years ago on a small stone cottage adjacent to the school, and several residents laughing for the first time since they entered the home.
For neighborhood officials, the program has been the most poignant feature in an evolving relationship between the quiet, middle-class residential community and one of its largest landmarks -- a nonprofit, extended-care facility for 178 chronically ill or disabled people that until 10 years ago was referred to by its legal name, The Washington Home for the Incurables.
"Some kids were not allowed to walk on the same side of the street because parents feared they would catch some kind of disease," said Diane Bui, president of Hearst's PTA.
"Historically, just the name alone had a certain negative connotation," said Hugh Allen, former president of the North Cleveland Park Citizens Association. "The home didn't reach out to the neighborhood and the neighborhood didn't reach out to the home."
Reaching out, he says, began with a simple need for space. About three years ago the association started meeting in the home's auditorium. Parents learned that the stage there might be available and asked if Hearst students could use the hall for practicing school plays. Last spring the children performed "The Wizard of Oz," their first production for the residents.
After watching the residents' reaction to the students, Shatkin got the idea of starting a program to bring the children to the home on a less formal basis.
"It can be lonely here. The residents are dependent on outside sources for stimulation, human connection and affection," says Shatkin, who created the program in January. "It was something they never talked about before."
"My 'grandparent' doesn't have any relatives now. Sometimes she says she doesn't want to live anymore, but she smiles when I come in," says Julie Silard, 11, whose honorary grandparent Bertha Spori is blind and usually bedridden.
Spori calls out, "Julie," whenever she hears a young female voice echo in the hall outside her small but airy room.
Teacher Muriel Logan's 28 sixth graders and nine fifth graders visit with their 'grandparents' for an hour twice a month during social studies class time.
Resident Mary Bryan, 95, confined to a wheelchair, says she and her 'grandchild,' Dilara Orer, 10, spend their time talking. "I appreciate her wanting me," Bryan says.
Many of the youngsters who live nearby drop in on weekends or after school to play cards, chat, share sodas and candy or push elderly people in wheelchairs through the halls to porch areas or the residents' lounge.
The children move freely in and out of the building. They are not required to sign the visitors' log, as adults are.
At the orientation session in February, the children toured the building and were instructed on how to maneuver wheelchairs safely. "Before they met the residents, I asked them what all people need," recalls Shatkin, "and they responded: 'Love, shelter, affection and friendship.'"