William Vaughn was thinking of his grandmother in Michigan.
Vaughn, a 16-year-old junior at Overland High School, had just made a tour of the school cafeteria, stopping at the tables to chat with some of the guests who were rapidly filling up the room. It was after regular school hours on Sept. 13, and the visitors taking their places at tables to eat their suppers weren't Vaughn's high-school peers.
They were residents from local senior communities, neighbors of the Overland campus who'd come to celebrate one of the school's longest-running traditions. The school's Annual Senior Citizen Dinner drew dozens of guests who'd come to Overland to enjoy good food, compelling entertainment and the company of some of the school's most accomplished students.
Vaughn was one of those students, and early in the evening, his interactions with the seniors from the local community had him meditating on his own personal connections.
"It makes me think about my grandma a lot. It just reminds me of the conversations I have with her," he said, pointing to conversations about pasts and futures, recollections of lives lived and reflections on hopes for the future. "I've gotten a lot of advice about what to expect. I don't even know where to start sometimes, thinking about where I'm going to college and scholarships.
"They have a lot of understanding and knowledge about things like that," he added.
Connecting students and seniors has been the mission of the annual Overland event since it launched 30 years ago. For the space of a single meal, residents of different ages from the same community come together to exchange perspectives. For the students, it's a valuable opportunity to glean life lessons from those with plenty of lived experience. For the seniors, it's a chance to reflect on the past and offer gems of wisdom.
This year's gathering featured live musical performances by Seniors 88, a local a capella group, as well as Overland ensembles 9 Mile Jazz and the school's jazz band. With a swinging soundtrack from the stage and a full-course meal on their tables, the guests were treated to a warm welcome. Overland "ambassadors" – students from the school's National Honor Society chapter as well as representatives from its Cheers and Poms groups – greeted arrivals as they got off their buses, led them to their tables, served refreshments and, most importantly, engaged in conversation.
"We like to remind our students that they are Overland ambassadors. They are the first thing our guests see as far as what Overland represents, so they make it their mission to leave a positive impression," said Susie Ruiz, activities assistant at the school. "This helps our kids build relationships. They're so used to being around their peers and teachers. This gives them tools to talk to people … and to understand the Overland community."
The dialogues also offered participants a chance to share viewpoints. Roxanne Smith, a resident of the Heather Gardens retirement community in Aurora, chatted with honor roll students about the future – its promise, its uncertainty and its inevitability.
"We've been there," Smith said. "I feel hope for the future after speaking with these students. I'm encouraged, and I feel very welcomed."
Gwen Skillings, another Heather Gardens resident, had simple and direct advice for the students who visited her table.
"I said, 'Enjoy your year. It really goes fast,'" Skillings said. "That was the main thing."