Canyon del Oro High School special education teacher Pam Duarte has found a way to brighten the lives of the elderly while helping her students hone their social skills.

Duarte takes her life skills class, which consists of special needs students, to the Fountains at La Cholla every other week. There, the students hang out, chat and play games for about an hour with residents in the memory care ward who have dementia or other memory-related illnesses.

The facility, at 2001 W. Rudasill Road, houses more than 300 seniors.

Fountains spokeswoman Karen Conway said the students’ visits, particularly a Feb. 10 Valentine’s Day-themed dance, is therapeutic for the seniors.

“You just get to see their eyes light up, and both groups have such a good time,” she said. “They’re interacting with each other, and they both get to help each other out in the sense of being part of the same community twice a month.”

The students and seniors play bingo and Wii bowling and make arts and crafts.

Duarte said the visits prepare her students to be helpful, productive and self-sufficient adults.

“Our purpose of taking students out into the community, whether it’s a volunteer job at a church or at a food bank or clothing bank, or whatever, is to give students the opportunity to practice daily living and learn how to act independently,” she said.

The seniors are pleased with the play dates. Lee De Yonghe, 97, said she was thrilled with the dance.

“Oh, man. This place was going crazy,” she said. “Those kids were singing and dancing around and everything.”

Ruth Stokes, 92, said the dance was a highlight of her week.

“It was great,” she said. “I enjoyed it.”

Kristen Swena, a 16-year-old sophomore, said the feeling was mutual.

“They are friendly,” she said. “They are nice. They were excited. Without us, they would be miserable.”

Megan Morin, a 19-year-old senior, said she is “very excited and happy” to visit the residents.

“They are nice,” said Kim Woolridge, a 17-year-old sophomore. “I had fun dancing with them.”

Cristobal Tovar, a 15-year-old sophomore, said he enjoys playing games with the seniors, calling them friendly.

Duarte said the visits have gotten better over time, as the seniors have warmed to the kids, who have grown more comfortable with their new friends.

“At first they just kind of wondered why we were there,” she said. “And now, I think, they recognize us and are more comfortable.”

Conway said seniors look forward to the students’ visits.

“Every time they come, the seniors are so happy,” she said. “They all laugh. The residents talk about it for days. It helps give them something to think about, remember and be happy about. It brings life back into them.”

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or