HARLEM — As middle school student Xavier Surgener manned the video camera, Laura Pearson, 83, sat in her room at the Northern Manhattan Nursing Home on 125th Street and talked about how she had spent her life helping to raise nieces, nephews and half her neighborhood.
"I used to have all the neighborhood kids in my house," said the retired school aide. "I didn't mind feeding the neighborhood children. A lot of them turned out alright."
Surgener, a participant in Old School Films, a non-profit that pairs aspiring young filmmakers with senior citizens in an effort to capture their stories, listened to Pearson. Before long, she switched into grandmother mode.
"I truly want you to think about your goals in life," she said.
More than making a documentary about the lives of residents in the nursing home, the goal of Old School Films is to connect young people with often forgotten seniors, said Cassie Jones, director of programs for Old School Films.
"it's very therapeutic for the seniors and young people. They get life lessons and realize they are much more connected to their elders than they thought," Jones said.
The program is working with students at Global Tech Prep Middle School in East Harlem.
Paul Gaston, 13, called the conversation with senior citizens "refreshing" and said they reminded him of the ones he had with his late grandparents.
"It's their stories and their humanity," said Gaston, who wants to be an animator when he grows up.
Iradelyn Paredes, 13, interviewed Annie Washington, 81, a retired waitress, about her plans to run for president at the nursing home.
"I believe she's doing it because she wants to help people," said Paredes. "I'd vote for her if I could."
Washington, who postponed an appointment with the hairdresser to be filmed, said it was more than worth it.
"We need to talk about the things that are important in their life," Washington said. "They need someone to give them some backbone."
The students are paired with mentors such as freelance documentarian Dana Menusan, 22, who takes the Long Island Rail Road and multiple subway lines to be with the kids in East Harlem once a week. They learn about editing, sound and collecting B roll, among other film concepts.
"You can see it in the seniors faces that they are happy to talk, be nostalgic and pass on their advice and encouragement," Menusan said.
The benefits are mutual.
"Some kids really blossom. They are shy and reserved when the program first starts but when we start filming, I see a totally different side," added Menusan.
That's what happened to Luis Rivera, 15, soon after he joined the program.
"I'm not usually the type to ask people questions. I'm usually in the back of the crowd," said Rivera. But speaking with Pearson has helped to change that. He thinks of each session with a senior citizen as a history class, his favorite subject.
The kids can use their newly acquired skills and the finished product they will produce to apply to various high schools and colleges. The experience will help them throughout life.
"They learn they can be creative in any way they put their mind to," Jones said. "And they learn they have a voice and that voice is valuable."
Paredes said she has also learned that her newfound skills have value— monetary value. Once her brother, a singer, found out she could shoot video, she began shooting music videos of him at the park.
The first few were free, said Paredes.
"He said you should shoot more videos for me because I'm your brother," she said. "I'm thinking he might have to pay."