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Ep. 128: Susan Hebbel

Susan Hebbel is the founder of Bridge the Generations which connects professional artists and senior citizens through artists’ residencies, virtual concerts and intimate storytelling experiences. Susan shares about a solo cross-country road trip that sparked the idea and the power of giving back to aging adults. 

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Josh: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and not Lucas McCurdy. Today, we are blessed to have our producer, Sara Mitchell with us in his stead, and also welcome to our show, Susan Hebbel and she is with Bridge the Generations group that you’re going to hear a lot about. 


But first I’ll explain just a little bit, me and Sara will, about why Lucas is not with us. As you all know, Lucas, and I actually have day jobs- unpopular opinion. Everyone thinks that we do this full time, which we do spend a lot of time on it, but Lucas would never brag on himself. So I’m going to take just a moment to tell you that he is out loving his day job in senior living communities. And he is doing his typical reconstruction, taking care of the older community environments and making those new, and also doing infection control and helping communities battle COVID. And so what a worthy thing that he’s out doing. So we’re missing him today, but so good to have you with us, Sara.


Sara: Thank you. I’m so excited to be here. You know, it is very, very infrequent that we have to reschedule a podcast and Lucas had a special mission today and we just could not let Susan be postponed any longer. So I’m excited to step in. We do miss you Lucas. But Josh, you’re taking the reins today, so let’s do this.


Josh: Awesome. Well, again, welcome to the show, Susan, with Bridge the Generations. I am so excited to talk with you today. We’ve gotten just a little behind the scenes conversation with you, which is always super fun to get to know you a little bit. We want our audience to get to know you. Many of you have you probably already follow Bridge the Generations on Instagram. That’s actually how we found Susan and the cool things that they do. So Susan, welcome to the show.


Susan: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.


Josh: Well, it’s so good to have you with us. And before we get to talking about your Bridge the Generations nonprofit, tell us a little bit about your background.


Susan: Okay. Well, my background is really not at all in senior living except for one day a week, volunteering to call bingo numbers years ago when my kids were younger. They’re all grown now and out of the house. And so that’s where it all began actually probably all began with the love of my grandmother. And then went on to be the love of these senior citizens that I called bingo numbers two and took chocolate to every week. So that’s where it began. 


Then I went on a road trip where I volunteered in every city that I went to and also found out about this organization, which probably a lot of your listeners know about called Providence Mount St. Vincent. And that kind of inspired me to, to build the bridge, so to speak. 


Sara: Susan, you’ve got to dive a little bit deeper into this road trip that you just kind of skipped over. It was actually a really epic adventure. So talk us through that. Tell us the details of that daily schedule that you were so intentional about that kind of launched this program.


Susan: It was actually- it really was epic. It probably was the biggest change in my life as an adult. I was, let’s see, 52 years old at the time. My kids were grown and out of the house and I decided that I needed to kind of find myself. I always tell my husband, it’s a good thing I didn’t look for another man. I just looked for a purpose. 


And so I scheduled this road trip, which I painstakingly prepared and, and contacted all these nonprofits throughout the country. Every city I knew I was going to be at when I was going to be there and said, hey, I’m going to be here this day. Do you need a volunteer? I can do paperwork. I’ve done fundraising before. I’ve, you know, I gave them any number of things. And the first one to respond in each city was where I went to.


Like I put up light bulbs in low income housing in New Orleans for a little nonprofit, a little grassroots, nonprofit. They’ve put up a million light bulbs. I did another, a race that was done for a women’s shelter or we handed out t-shirts. And then this Providence Mount St. Vincent, which is the, the preschool inside of the senior living facility. That place is what really inspired me to come back. But it was 7,400 miles. It was a couple of weeks. And at first I was really scared and then it was very liberating and I ended up finding myself. And this is, I really believe that this work that we do with seniors is truly my life’s purpose and enjoying every minute of it. So it was, it was a very inspiring trip, very liberating trip. And I suggested to any woman who’s looking to find themselves.


Sara: I love that. And Susan it’s so, I think, inspiring for a lot of people. See you kind of very similar to myself, kind of happen upon senior living, not knowing a lot about it. Give us a little background. You mentioned your grandmother. What is that relationship and how do you think I guess kind of from a former outsider, what is this industry for you and what’s your kind of your background there? 


Susan: Let’s see. Well, I guess my experience with my grandmother was just, she was young when she died. So I was 17 when she died, but I was with her. And she was just kind of always old and always a grandma, but there was a relationship that followed me through my life. I mean, she, there’s so many things that have happened with the bridge where I know she’s the one kind of responsible for it all happening.


I don’t know. I don’t know how to really explain my former, you know, my relationship with her to what’s going on now, except for that, I was crazy about her. She was probably my favorite person ever, you know, so to be around. And her life was her last five years. She lived with us for the last five years of her life because she was sick. And I don’t know, I just feel like being a young person with her gave her a little bit of life. 


And now I’m seeing it with my own parents who are 83 and 87. It’s almost like, you know, my other sister takes care of putting the, you know, bringing the food in for them and everything. My husband and I are more the ones that say, okay, come on, let’s sit down and talk about the other day. Well, I’m not even going to go into this yet. I know we’re going to talk later about the whole idea of what we can do to be the bridge. And I had a moment- unless you want to hear it now- I had a moment with my parents recently that really kind of zeroed in on that whole idea of, of, you know, what we can do just in our daily lives to be the bridge.


Josh: Well, I love that Susan and we can bounce around however you want. This is simply just a conversation. One thing that may tie into what you were just talking about, about how to be the bridge. Tell us a little bit I think we got a little bit of it in the conversation prior to recording today about when you were on this road trip some of the experiences and visiting different places, and then you saw a program, a very popular program, but maybe some of our listeners haven’t heard about that, where you saw the intergenerational component and it just kind of sparked some energy and how that kind of has you know, rolled into forming this Bridge the Generations group.


Susan: Sure. Yeah, that’s a good question. I did. I saw at Providence Mount St. Vincent, it is a preschool and a senior community in one building. So when you walk in, there’s a preschool, there’s a senior living community and they do a lot of activities together. So they would do community service projects together where they would stuff baggies for homeless people, some food. They would celebrate birthdays together. 


But what I thought was really, really neat to watch was in the hallway, you would see as we often do, we’ve all been in and out of lots of senior communities, right? Where a senior might be sitting in their wheelchair in the hall with their head down and just kind of resting or whatever they’re doing. I often think that they’re thinking, but it looks like they are resting and they would hear the sound of a child’s voice down the hall. And just the whole posture would change. The, the, the senior would sit up, eyes would light up and, and they’d look for the child. And the child would, sometimes the child would come running, they get hugs. The senior would walk the child to their classroom. I mean, it was just, it was so beautiful and it was so moving to me, I barely could stop from tearing up everywhere I went. I thought, why is this not happening? I actually still wonder why it’s not happening throughout the country. 


And we were originally going to do the preschool, but what started happening was the component of music and artists that I wanted involved in the whole project, all these generations coming together that just started taking off and having a life of its own, which led us to focusing in on artists and having them come in and do some memory recall with music and spend a week at a time with the seniors and get to know them. 


And then at the end of the week, you know, these seniors are saying, why are these broadway actors and why are they coming to us? You know, they’re so important and we’re not basically. And then what started sparking through my brain over and over again was why do they not feel that important? Why do they not feel like they’re important enough to have to have artists come and stay with them for a week and hang out and have some fun? 

Oftentimes I just feel like they, it’s not that they don’t have a purpose. I think sometimes they just don’t think people want to hear their stories and a huge part of what the bridge is, is giving life to these stories that they all have. And we’ve all been around seniors that have these great stories, but so often they just. I mean, my own father said the other day, you know, people just don’t want to hear what an old man has to say. And I just disagree with that completely. I think we all could get a little something out of hearing their stories. And so that’s kinda what we’re trying to do through the arts.


Josh: Oh, I love it. So you have teased our listeners to death that don’t know what Bridge the Generations actually is and what you do on a daily basis and what your mission is. So can you just kind of tell us you know, what that is and what you guys seek to do on a daily basis?


Susan: Sure, sure. Well, what we’re trying to do now, now that we have a different world, we’re doing a lot of things virtually which I think is kind of exciting in a way. At first I was thinking, oh, we’re just getting these. We’re just getting these artists to fly in from New York and LA and Nashville and come to all these senior communities and just have this great time. And money was being donated and it was amazing. And it always seemed to show up, but then COVID hit. And we were like, well, now we can’t bring them into the communities. So what do we do? 


And I reached out to some of the artists and said, would any of you like to do just a virtual concert? And we had such an outpouring of interest that we ended up with over 80 artists and most of them Broadway and like I said, LA where else are they from? Nashville, Disney, some university students too. And they put together this great series of concerts that were all senior songs, you know, songs that they would like from the forties, old standards. 


And we sent them out to all- and everybody kept saying, wait, what do we have to do for this? And I’m like, nothing. We’re just trying to get this out to create a little happiness because we can’t come into your community, you know, in person. Well, they loved it. And so now what we do now, I have artists, friends who are writing me and saying, hey, we’re doing, I have a Broadway couple that we’re friends with that do these performances. And they charge for them online because they’re trying to make a living too cause all of them are out of jobs, you know? And they send me these concerts and say, will you send them out now the communities for free? 


So I have all these people now saying here, send this to them, send it. So I become kind of a programming organization right now. But we are focused right now on a day to day basis on creating these one-on-one experiences where the seniors are able to tell their stories to someone, then how it basically goes is we hook up a senior with an artist. So I’ll give you an example, our very first pilot and we’re just piloting it now. So if anybody’s listening, that’s interested, I really urge you to come to the website and sign up because we already have a list of artists who want to get involved. And the communities are probably more of what are listening to you and we’d love to make this happen for you as well. 


So what it basically is is our first one was a young artist, female artist. Young, I’d say young youngest, I’m 55, she’s 34, I think 34, 35. And she’s hooked up with a 96 year old man. He’s in South Carolina. She’s actually currently in Houston and she’s raising a family now. So she’s been through, she’s done movies, TV vocal coaching she’s been in Broadway shows. She’s just an amazing person, but she was clean, trained classically in voice. And I didn’t even know that, but for some reason I knew what kind of heart she had. So I really was picking the artists for her heart. She’s a really amazing person. She’s now actually on our board which is exciting. 


So we took her and we hooked her up with Chet, who’s in South Carolina, 96 years old, I think he’s 96. And he is a pianist and he sometimes will play at the senior community. And so I knew him pretty well and I knew her sort of well, and I thought they’d fit well. They hit it off beautifully the very first time. So we got them on a zoom call and I introduced them the first week. And then for six weeks following, they get together at the same time on zoom for about a half an hour and they chit chat and they get to know each other. And at the end of six weeks, the artists will present the senior with a gift of art basically. So what Jennifer’s doing for Chet, which I think is amazing, he loves- I think Chopin is his favorite classical musician or classical music composer. 


So she’s taking, she now does children’s parties for her living. She goes and does she’s a Disney princess at parties. And so she reads books to young kids and everything. So she’s making a book of Chet’s life, a children’s book of Chet’s life. So that, and then she’s going to record it with Chopin in the background and she’s going to be reading it and that’ll be her gift to him. But then the actual book she is actually going to leave for him so that he has something to give to his great grandchildren who he doesn’t see very often so that they have a history of his life. They have a little story about his life. So hers, I thought her idea and she made up. The artist does what they want to do. 


We have another visual artist work just starting this week with a senior he’s in Brooklyn, she’s in Virginia. Aand what, what I love is that, like Jennifer said, the six weeks are over, but she’s going to call chat every week. You know, she said, I can’t, I don’t wanna, I don’t want to not talk to them every week. It’s become such a regular part. And she said, I feel like I have a grandfather and I didn’t have my grandfather growing up. 


And I just it’s it’s win, win, win, win, win for everyone. We’ve got seniors that are happy. I mean, Chet went from losing a friend of his in the senior community and having to put his cat down. And he was just kind of, he had just kind of given up, I felt like he was, and he was such a light filled person. And he just felt like he was, I’m telling you by the end of the six weeks, I mean, he wrote me this beautiful note about how he didn’t know how it was going to work since he’s twice Jennifer’s age, but from the very beginning, they hit it off and they have this beautiful friendship. I mean, it’s awesome. 


So I think it’s going to be a great program and I think it’s gonna spread a lot of happiness all over the country and that’s what we’re trying to do. And his story is told and the same with the artists that the other one that’s almost finished is a composer, Broadway composer that’s working with an 83 year old woman and he’s almost done. She can’t see very well, but she kind of dabbles in the piano. So he’s putting together the song that he’s written. And it’s almost done and he’s gonna record it. And then he’s going to give her the sheet music in really big print so that she can actually play it herself, but it’s going to be her song. You know, it’s a song about her life. 


I mean, it’s just, it’s so awesome. And that 83 year old was like, guess what? He’s going to have my song ready next week. My song, you know, I mean, I don’t know. It just feels good. It feels good. Whole thing makes me happy because the senior’s happy, he artist is happy to do it, but also it kind of builds their insides for better art, you know? I mean, it works all the way around and then the communities watch it and they see the engagement, they see how much more they can engage their seniors in things and how much more they have to offer. I don’t know all the way around.


Josh: What an amazing mission you have and what amazing work you all are doing. You had mentioned is this the description of the story bridge in the song bridge, what you just described?


Susan: Yes, that’s exactly right. That’s what we call it. Story bridge and song bridge.


Josh: I love that. So right now, I know that there’s antennas going up. We have a broad group of listeners and a growing group of listeners from community level team members and leaders through regional directors of operations, all the way to the C suite and even a growing number of students that are not in the industry at all, that are just looking for opportunities where they can get involved in something that’s a career on mission. And this is a perfect example of not only what happens in our industry as we refer to it, but all of the cool mission driven organizations that serve our industry and our elders on a daily basis. 


So talk to us a little bit there’s two more things. Sara probably has some things too. Two more things that I want to ask you about as we’re wrapping up: One, if people are out there and want to be part of this in some way, whether it’s the community level or an artist I want to know about that and I know our listeners want to know how to get involved, but to, I don’t want to miss the opportunity of what you touched on in the beginning to tell us about a personal story you had with I believe your parents. So if you could kind of do those two things for us, that would be great.


Susan: Sure. Thank you. Thank you. I really would love to have as many people as possible go to our website. We have some great videos on there that show kind of what we do when the artists are there. It’s different every time, because it depends on the artist that’s there, right? You know, you’re going to get different, which is what makes it a lot of fun, but go into our website and look at what we do. And there’s a place to sign up there. If you’re interested in volunteering, if you’re interested, we especially, obviously, look for artists and we look for communities. 


There’s something that for your community listeners, we have something super exciting coming up. I can’t really say much about it, but it gives communities that view this as really important work, which it’s funny. You really know the ones that find this work to be important, this more engagement, more arts, more creativity, more human interaction, more, you know, there are the communities that are really super focused in on that and then there’s communities that don’t seem to be as focused in on it. I


 have a feeling that it’s going to become this, like I said, this movement where you’re going to want to jump on board or else you’re going to be, you know, swimming. You know what I mean? Because we have this program getting ready to start where the communities that are really interested in what we do and feel that we are integral work instead of just kind of side work. We are going to be asking them to join us in the movement probably by way of a membership, but we’re not there yet. We just want to keep providing all this free free programming and free activities. And we have a newsletter that just started going out. So our very first one just went out this week, actually.


So information and programming and all that, because we do want to create, like I said, a movement where everybody jumps on together, the communities, the artists, other people who are involved in senior living just coming on board. So take a look at our website, keep looking at it’s and also Instagram.


So I have to get a shout out to Stephanie. You said you found me on Instagram. And I, like I said, I’m 55. That’s not old. I’m just saying it’s 55. And I don’t do a lot of the social media. And I found this wonderful human who Stephanie has taken over my social media and doing it for practically nothing, just because she’s a lovely human. And she is the reason that you found me. So I’m grateful to her. 


But I think just staying tuned into the website, tuned into social media will show you all the things that are coming down the road. So keep your eyes peeled there. And definitely, definitely send me an email if you’re interested in getting involved and having your community involved or, or also being an artist and wanting to sign up for one of our projects. 


Sara: That’s awesome. And we can’t wait to connect our audience with you, Susan, do you want to quickly tell us about the story with your parents?


Susan: Yes, because I feel super strong about this idea that we can all be the bridge, you know, kind of people say, and that falls too, with what you were saying, Josh, you were saying, how can we get them involved? And I don’t think it has to be by volunteering for an organization or anything like that. So many of us have parents or grandparents that are aging. They may be in the house. They may be in a senior community, but wherever they are, I think there’s a way to just spark that conversation. 


And that goes to a story that leads to a story that about two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to have my, my parents with me and I had to go get them in Florida cause they weren’t driving. And the COVID thing, they were getting back up to Florida- I mean, back up to Northern Virginia where they live. So they stayed at my house for a couple of days. My dad is the typical 87-year-old businessman all his life. I mean, he’s a really sweet guy and he’s really a good guy and a generous guy, but not super romantic. I always say my mom needs a little more romance. Like he should be a little more sweet, right? So we’re sitting in my sun room and we were talking about the project and some of these projects that we’re starting, like the song bridge and story bridge, they loved it. 


And I said, hey, what kind of music did you guys listen to? And that’s all I said. And it led to my dad said, well, remember we used to dance in the basement, somebody’s basement. And what year was that? In  1951. And so I said, okay, 51. So I got my computer and I pulled up all the songs from 1951, the a hundred top songs or 50 or something. We started at the top and I would push play and I’d play a little bit of it and they’d both start singing. And at one point I don’t even know what the song was. I wrote it down because I wanted to remember about the third song down. My dad was looking at my mom in a way I’ve never seen before. And my mom was saying, Oh, do you remember this one, Joe? And he said, I certainly do. And there was this moment where they were both transported back to 1951 and I let that sink in for a while. I kept letting the song play and my dad was just staring up. My mother makes me cry. And I said, dad, is it like a distant memory to you? And he never took his eyes off my mother. And he said, not so distant at all. 


And I thought to myself right there in that moment, I thought all it takes is for somebody to say, hey, did you go to the theater when you were little? Who took you to the theater? What did you listen to? What did you and mom and dad first dance to? You know, I mean just any songs like that. I mean, any questions like that, that bring up, you know, the arts or experiences, it doesn’t even have to be arts related. It can just be an experience, a story that they want to tell. And once they have the opportunity to tell the story, I mean, that’s really all it took. We spent an hour and a half in there talking about the things they did when they were younger, that I never knew.


I never knew they had dance parties in their neighbor’s basement. And that’s how they would dance. I never knew they went square dancing. My God, you know, my dad was from, was from Brooklyn originally. I’m like, how the hell did you learn to square dance? You know? It was just an amazing one and a half hours time that I got with my parents that I will never take for granted. It was, it was beautiful. 


And I think we just all need to realize that seniors have stories to tell and they want to tell them, but we have to give them the opportunity, whether we’re they’re in a setting like the Bridge or whether it’s a setting like your living room. You know, we need to, we need to really listen to what they have to say because they want to share the stories. It makes them feel good. And, and they have a lot to share. 


Sara: Well, as all of our listeners are reaching over to grab a tissue as they just listened to that story, that was incredible. And thanks for sharing that. 


You know, I think some takeaways here, obviously there’s power in music. There’s also power in just communication and asking the right questions and probing a little bit and just opening up that conversation. We can obviously tell your passion and your passion for the organization. So it’s been such a delight to meet you and to hear all of these stories. And I know Josh has a strong passion also for communication and just telling those love stories is what we say at our company. So it’s, it’s great to see that come to play. 


Susan: Aw, thank you! I hope you’re on the lookout. The composer is talking about putting together an album where we have songs about all these. I mean, we have so many, there’s so many ideas I need to like zero in and focus on the, on the things that we have at hand, because it’s so many places we can take this and I want this to be so huge that someday- I really do. I’m very passionate about it. And I hope that someday we’re all looking at this. I don’t know if you all know Montessori schools, right? Everybody knows a Montessori school that started as an idea and a way to teach. 


And I want this to be a way that we not only treat our seniors, but a way that we care for them, not with just a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, but sparking their souls and their creativity and their passions and hearing their stories because I just think that’s the way we’re supposed to do it. And sometimes we lose sight of that in this country. Other countries do it a little bit better than we do, but I think this is, this is the time to, to make those there’s this time of change in our country. And I hope that it’s a time of change in the way we view and treat and love on our seniors. You know, I really, really hope everybody will just come on in with me and join in and do it, whether you’re doing it at home or helping me out. I really appreciate you guys listening and putting this out there. And I hope everybody that listened feels compelled to do something.


Josh: Well, I know they will. Susan, thank you so much for taking time with us today at Bridge the Gap. I know our listeners appreciate that. They’re going to want to connect with you. Bridge the Gap is already connected with you. We are going to put all of your information in our show notes, including your website and your Instagram. Because I know people are gonna to connect with you. Thank you again for joining us and thank it. 


Thank you again for sharing your personal stories and some practical ways that we can all be the bridge. We say that often we want everyone to join us. You can all be the bridge. Thank you for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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Ep. 128: Susan Hebbel