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Uniting generations through reading

350. Johanna Harris

Dr Johanna Harris is a university lecturer who founded the Care Homes Reading Project that brings together hundreds of elderly people & students in Exeter.

10 Downing Street

Johanna, 35, has worked as an English lecturer at the University of Exeter for almost five years. When she joined in 2011, she wanted to give students the opportunity to make links with other people outside their lecture halls, universities and their own ‘generational bubble’. She decided to set up the Care Homes Reading Project where students volunteer to read to elderly people and vulnerable adults. These relationships offer companionship for elderly people and a strong intergenerational link that the programme claims is key to building a healthy community.

As an academic of Literature and the English language, Johanna has seen first hand how poems, plays and books can provide a common link for people from different backgrounds, cultures and generations. The recognition of well-known poems and readings can also help manage conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, as the recognition of well-known text and characters can stir long lost memories.

For the Care Homes Reading Project, students are trained in how to work with elderly and vulnerable adults before being linked with a specific care home. They then visit the care home on a weekly basis to read and socialise with the residents. Many relationships between the students and the residents start with reading groups and then go on to become friendships.

Johanna has been overwhelmed by the support she has received from both the student and local community. This year, she has recruited over 100 student volunteers and has links with 10 care homes across Exeter. She has plans to expand the scheme into local schools.  

Prime Minister David Cameron said:

“Johanna’s vision to bring together young and old people to help each other enjoy reading has given valuable companionship and enjoyment to hundreds of people across Exeter. The Care Homes Reading Project has enabled hundreds of Exeter students to give something back to their local community and make a real difference to the daily lives of the older people they spend time with. I’m delighted to recognise Johanna’s service with the UK’s 350th Point of Light.”

Johanna said:

“It’s a great privilege for me and the students to be recognised with this Points of Light award. The Project is a huge success and this is only possible because of the enthusiasm and dedication of our students, and their commitment to the local community. I hope this encourages more young people around the country to get involved in volunteering in activities that focus on supporting elderly residents and build strong links in our community.

“ From my own experiences, I have seen what literature can do. One poem that is requested again and again by both students and the care home residents is Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’. There is something about the beauty of nature, the nostalgia and the downright Englishness of that poem which transcends generational gaps and really brings people together.”

The daily Points of Light award recognises outstanding individual volunteers - people who are making a change in their community.

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