White River High student’s senior project centers on senior citizens

Warren Wheeler is surrounded by some of his new friends from the Bonney Lake Senior Center. - Photo by Judy Halone
Warren Wheeler is surrounded by some of his new friends from the Bonney Lake Senior Center.
— image credit: Photo by Judy Halone

Warren Wheeler has learned a lot about the world during the past couple of months. And he owes it all to his senior project.

An 18-year-old senior at White River High, Wheeler has been counting down the months until graduation. But to get there, among his requirements were 20 hours of community service.

“Originally I was just going to help out in the dining room and kitchen at the Bonney Lake Senior Center,” he said. “But I had to do something for seniors because Sue Hilberg (senior center director) said this wasn’t going to be a free ride.”

Because he knew several of the seniors – due to his mom Laura’s job as the center’s cook – Wheeler had already gained friendships with the older generation. But he still needed to find a way to work that into community service.

“I brainstormed,” he said. “Because I’m in AP (advanced placement) English I thought I might as well use what I’m learning in class – like applying the grammar and word choice. My mom suggested diversity and at first I thought about race.”

Diversity took on new meaning for Wheeler. “Then the thought came to me: these seniors come from different places,” he said. “That led me here.”

It also led to a world of stories just waiting to be told.

Wheeler used a simple plan to achieve his goal.

“I limited it to three or four questions to help me stay on target,” he said. Those included questions about the seniors’ ancestry, whether they had travelled to their countries of origin and how long they’d attended the senior center.

He asked. He listened. He took notes. Soon, he had enough information to create an essay in newsletter form. He entitled it, “Around the World With Seniors” (see accompanying story).

What began as a senior project quickly turned into a living history lesson.

“It’s good,” Inez Turner said of Wheeler’s work. “Sometimes, kids can learn other than through books by actual contact with people.”

Choosing such an undertaking can help teens prepare for the future, said Turner, who shared her stories of growing up during the Depression. “They don’t have the slightest idea, but we’re heading into one now.

“I got to share my stories with him – I have so many,” she continued. “Us older people have a lot we can tell the younger generation of our experiences. And they’ll have a lot to share when they get to be our age.”

Wheeler’s questions led to stories that might never have been shared otherwise, such as the case with Shirley Spietz.

“At one point in my life I quit talking about stuff,” Spietz said. “I did feel like I had something worth sharing but was told to shut my mouth up. Then Warren started asking me questions. At first it was hard to recollect but he went on to the next question and I thought, oh – I did this! I was surprised.”

She wasn’t the only one who benefitted.

“It was really cool,” Wheeler said of her stories.

The history kept coming, even after Wheeler had completed his newsletter. He learned last week that Spietz had lived in Africa during the mid-1960s while her husband served a term in the military. They returned home on May 27, 1967, she said. Five days later, Libyan leader Moammar Khadafi led the first coup d’etat against Western pro-democracy.

“We never found out what happened to our friends who were left behind,” Spietz told Wheeler.

Other lessons came from Kathe McElroy, who shared a first-hand account of watching her city of Dresden, Germany, burn during World War II. She also shared of her days as a ballerina.

“From Kathe’s story I learned you have to let the hard things go,” Wheeler said. “She lost her whole family. She’s not exactly over it but she’s moved on.”

McElroy praised Wheeler’s project idea.

“Why not do this?” she said. “We were all here, so he had no problem finding people.”

Now that his community service is completed, Wheeler said he’s glad he wasn’t allowed to take the easy way out. He offered advice to future seniors who are in the planning stages for next year’s projects.

“Do something out of the ordinary,” he said. “I thought I was going to work 20 hours in the kitchen – no big deal. But I learned so much more by interviewing the seniors and I had a lot of fun.”

Wheeler will present his project in May before a panel of judges consisting of school staff and community members. His post-graduation plans include attending ITT Technical Institute in Tukwila, Wash., to become a computer networking specialist and he’s now in the process of applying for scholarships.

While he remains focused on his future, Wheeler said he’s grateful for the chance to focus on others’ pasts.

“I’m definitely glad I did this,” he said. “I learned that everyone has a story to tell. All you have to do is listen and you’ll learn a lot.”

Reach Judy Halone at or 360-802-8010.

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