The Impact of Intergenerational Service

The Impact of Intergenerational Service National service in this country is predominantly age-segregated. AmeriCorps largely enrolls young adults, while AmeriCorps Seniors exclusively recruits older ones. As a result, we’re missing big opportunities to pair the...

These 10 Innovators Use Cogeneration to Advance Economic Opportunity

These 10 Innovators Use Cogeneration to Advance Economic Opportunity

Our first group of CoGen Challenge awardees are bringing older and younger people together  to boost the economic prospects of substitute teachers, artists with disabilities, people without homes, girls facing hardship in Appalachia, and so much more.   To learn more...

Need a Guide To Spark Productive, Intergenerational Conversations?

Need a Guide To Spark Productive, Intergenerational Conversations?

In March, we released our latest report, What Young Leaders Want — And Don’t Want — From Older Allies, summarizing what 31 Gen Z and Millennial leaders had to say about working with older people to solve pressing problems — aka “cogeneration” — and how it can be...

‘I Want These Girls to Know They Have Limitless Possibilities’

A group of grandmothers in Eastern Kentucky teams up with teen girls to build social connection and self-esteem, break the cycle of intergenerational trauma, and save their Appalachian community

By Sarah McKinney Gibson | May 21, 2024

A grandma and teen connect at a recent Mother’s Day event hosted by Mamaw Mentorship.

Gwen Johnson is the founder of Mamaw Mentorship in Eastern Kentucky and one of 10 awardees of the CoGen Challenge to Advance Economic Opportunity. Watch for interviews with all 10 of these innovators bringing older and younger people together to open doors to economic opportunity for all.

What is Mamaw Mentors and what life events brought you to this work?

We’re a collaboration of grandmothers who work with girls ages 11-13, to help build their self-esteem and get them thinking about their futures and considering entrepreneurship, certificate programs or a degree. It’s a longitudinal program because we plan to support them through adulthood. 

Growing up, women in Eastern Kentucky had bounded imaginations – we were told what we could have instead of being able to dream. The number one priority was for the coal to be mined. It left little to the imagination. I became a single mom of two daughters early in my life and I had to work.

Because of our socioeconomics here (the average household income is $23,000), girls are particularly at risk of putting themselves in dangerous situations if they don’t have a strong sense of self-worth and direction. I want these girls to know that they have limitless possibilities. It wasn’t that way with any of the grandmothers when we came up. 

What problem are you trying to solve? 

We’re trying to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and change the trajectory for women in this community. We are also trying to revamp the economy and convince people to finish high school, consider going to college, and come back to invest in this place. 

We are in the central Appalachian mountains. The population of this county is 21,000 and it’s steadily decreasing. We relied on the coal industry for 100 years but then that crumbled, and the opioid crisis has hit our community hard. 

A lot of the kids are being raised by other family members because their parents are addicted to drugs or in jail. I raised my nephew and helped my mom raise three other children. Kids have to have positive role models and supportive adults in order to succeed.

How do youngers and olders solve problems together?

So far, there are 12 grandmothers and 11 children. The young folks bring this high energy and fresh perspective, looking at the world through eyes that are not tainted with the worries of the adult world. They just bring such a freshness and sweetness to the mix. They’re also tech savvy and quick to help us if we have a problem with our devices. 

The grandmothers bring the wisdom of lived experience, even though we are trying really hard to do more listening than talking. We also foster a sense of community with these children that have been – because of the Covid pandemic and the age of technology – living in a silo on their devices. Any connection they’ve had has pretty much been online. We’re trying to develop flesh-and-blood, warm-body relationships and be present. It’s really just delightful. 

How often do you meet? 

The grandmothers meet separately once a month and we go into the local school every two weeks during the lunch break. We do our best to make ourselves approachable. We had some journals and some cool pens, that sort of thing. Meeting the girls happened pretty organically, and the next time we went back, it was easier because they knew who we were. 

We have permission forms that we send home to be signed by their parents or guardians and, of course, the grandmothers all pass background checks. We host some opportunities outside of school if the parents want to attend and bring the children. We’re going to do a Mother’s Day dinner, and the child can bring a couple of women they hold in high esteem. 

Why is bringing generations together important for the work you’re doing? 

Building social connections is important for both younger and older people. One of our grandmothers had back surgery recently, and a child from the neighborhood, who she’d met when we came to the school, showed up at her door with a plant. She was ecstatic! 

I think a lot of the kids’ guardians are really overwhelmed and some of them have a lot of kids that they’re taking care of. It was expressed to me how much they appreciated this program because it was helping them to know that someone besides them was interacting with these kids and being a positive role model. 

Have you encountered any unexpected positive or negative outcomes in bringing your project to life?

One of the things that has surprised me is the excitement I feel whenever I tell people about this project. People always get big smiles on their faces and they just love the idea of it. Even outside of this community, people just see the benefit right off the bat. “My goodness, I wish they had that as I came up.” I hear that all the time, over and over from folks. 

Some of the most enthusiastic responses are from people who have had to move out of our area to find work. I think it’s because they’re homesick. We have lots of problems here, but the terrain is beautiful. 

What would you advise someone who is looking to cogenerate? 

That it’s so needed. Whatever the idea or project you come up with, combining the olders and youngers is just so positive. We’re not trying to change each other’s minds. We just listen and hear each other out. I think positive interactions between the generations – in person – are so important. It’s a win-win. 

What is your favorite book? 

My favorite book ever is actually a series of books by Clarrissa Pinkola Estes. The first one is called Women Who Roam with the Wolves. She also wrote How to Be An Elder and The Power of the Crowne: Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype. She talks about being a woman and how she’s dangerous because she no longer cares what people think, and it’s really cool! You just live the way you live and go wherever you choose to go and I mean, it’s all about being able to choose instead of having things forced on you.