When Southside High School students recently engaged in a game of balloon volleyball against Fort Smith nursing home residents, they, in a way, met their match.

Participating in Project Compassion's GrandFriends program, more than a dozen Southside students playfully battled residents at Legacy Health & Rehabilitation, shortened pool noodles to swat at gliding, blue-colored balloons. The object of the game: Keep the balloons from hitting the floor and, more importantly, keep the nursing home residents smiling and interacting.

The Southside students came prepared for the laid-back, no-score contest in more ways than one, said Southside High School teacher Meagan Thompson.

"We talked about the elderly and how it's important to give your time and help," she said. "The students are learning about social skills, staying focused, following directions and working with a group.

"And one of my kids was doing sign language with a nursing home resident," added Thompson as her eyes widened. "The students are giving back to the community in a big way."

Southside senior Aaliyah Perkins stood near Legacy residents Edna Wescott and Peggy Lairamore during the laugh-filled match. Wescott, Lairamore and a few other peers gripped the pool noodles and did a good job of keeping the balloons from reaching the floor. Sitting in his wheelchair, one man even used his left foot to quickly kick a hovering balloon back into action.

"I think it is good," said Marcy Taylor, an office manager at Legacy Health & Rehabilitation, of the GrandFriends program, which features volunteers ages 5-17. "The interaction with the residents and students is what makes it special. This helps build relationships, which is a great thing for younger people to experience. This is benefiting the young and the elderly."

Perkins agreed that the GrandFriends visits are a positive experience both for students and their new senior-citizen friends.

"I like helping with the bake sale here (at Legacy Health & Rehabilitation), and we're helping people play games," she said. "It's fun because we like helping people."

Perkins' classmate, junior Logan Giles, also was more than ready to lend two helping hands. Affectionately called "the charmer" by his classmates and nursing home staff members, Giles grinned when asked why he was so eager to become a GrandFriends participant.

"I'm helping people," he said before smiling again. "And I like holding the door open for people. We're helping people and having fun."

Southside students in teacher Todd Watkins' class also are involved in the GrandFriends program. They spent time Wednesday morning cleaning out planters and planting new flowers while chatting with residents Gracie Allen, Joe Welling, Sally Bray and Wardell Flurry at Chapel Ridge Health & Rehabilitation in Fort Smith.

"The opportunity the program provides students to contribute to the community is great," said Watkins, whose son, Southside junior Sebastian, serves as a GrandFriend. "To have that opportunity for students to socialize and have those experiences and benefits, it's just a fantastic program."

Watkins said he and his students currently visit nursing homes once a month, but he expects the number of visits to increase in time.

"We hope as the benefits become more evident to everyone, that we will expand on that in our district," he said. "It's just a wonderful program with wonderful opportunities."

The bonding between Watkins' students and Chapel Ridge residents has been moving because of the "precious volunteers," said Sherry Savage, activity director at Chapel Ridge.

"I have been an activity director for 15 years and in these years of serving residents, Project Compassion has been a wonderful program," she said. "Project Compassion provides volunteers to the nursing home and they help with day activities, as well as night activities. With those activities, they call Bingo, help with Senior Olympics, shopping, arts and crafts and socials."

Founded by the late Gloria White in 1972 and serving as a United Way of Fort Smith Area community partner, Project Compassion started an "unofficial version" of GrandFriends several years ago, said Marian Conrad, executive director for Project Compassion. GrandFriends became a formal program "about three years ago" and continues to recruit new school classes, civic organizations, church members and others who are willing to donate their time and attention to seniors, she said.

"A lot of kids don't have grandparents anymore, or those grandparents live at a distance," Conrad said. "This program teaches young people about elderly residents and helps them relate to those elderly individuals.

"And the other side of it is, the residents have time with the children," she added. "The children benefit from hearing the nursing home residents' stories. It's a good program. The residents always look forward to seeing the children."

More than 60 percent of nursing home residents are without family or live too far from their relatives to enjoy frequent visits, according to Conrad. The GrandFriends program helps fill that void in multiple ways, she said.

"We have more than 350 GrandFriends in the program, and some of them visit regularly for Game Night and other activities," Conrad said. "It's good for the kids because they can visit whenever they can, either in a group or as individuals."

Students at Pike Elementary School also participate in the GrandFriends program, she said. Those students and others "learn about the elderly" so they can show them respect and compassion, Conrad said.

"The GrandFriends program is important because it lifts the nursing home residents' spirits," said Jennah Shipman, an assistant activity director at Chapel Ridge. "This program gets people involved, and I think everyone is having a great time with the program."

Thompson admitted that she and her pupils already are planning "something different and new" for a future visit to Legacy Health & Rehabilitation.

"My kids are wanting to do a dance class and lessons with these residents," she said. "My students want to teach them dance routines and show them all of their new, favorite dance moves. They can't wait to come back and do that for these people."