ODESSA — Dear Friend...
Wishing you well...
Have a nice day...
Where to start? That was the challenge for fifth-graders from Odessa Elementary School, who recently spent time penning cheerful messages to elders they had never met.
No problem. Brainstorming paired with good intentions fueled enough thoughtful verse and colorful drawings to fill greeting cards provided for the sole purpose of brightening someone else's day.
It's one of those win-win kind of things, with students learning about empathy and the age-old art of pen-to-paper correspondence. The recipients discover that someone cares about them.
"Maybe it makes them feel better because their families might not be around," said Raegan Musial, 11. "I wonder if I get older and am in a nursing home if people will bring me cards?"
"I think it's really cool to be giving them happy thoughts," said Kayden Rothausen, 10, as she worked on some finishing touches. "I wish I could be there when they open them."
That is a pretty awesome experience, according to Ronald Tyson, 53. He started the nonprofit greeting card outreach in which Odessa students were participating. It's called Bring Smiles to Forgotten Seniors.
Tyson and program director Linda Soto brought the cards to Odessa Elementary for students to fill out, then hand-delivered them to residents at Elmcroft of Carrollwood Senior Living Community.
"To see the seniors' faces when they open the card — there's this kind of light that comes over them," he said.
Students from Odessa and New River elementary schools have participated in the program that brings cards to assisted living facilities and seniors enrolled in Pasco County's Elderly Nutrition programs.
"Oh, my gosh, this is one of the neatest projects ever," said Odessa learning design coach Vanessa Fox. "I think overall this is an amazing life lesson because they're not only learning to write a card to someone, but they're also giving back to the community, and I think all of our students will benefit from that."
Tyson's grandmother, Lola Fortner, 95, is the inspiration. "Grandma Lola" lived with Tyson's family in Okeechobee for 40 years, but after being diagnosed with dementia, the family reluctantly moved her to an assisted living facility.
"She was a very strong woman who raised her children on her own," he said. "At times she didn't know where her next meal was coming from, but she always visited the sick and the elderly. Because I was the oldest grandchild, she often brought me with her. I learned early on a compassion for the elderly population through her."
During a February visit, Tyson noticed that, while his grandmother's room was made cheery with holiday decorations and greeting cards, some rooms were stark. Tyson reached out to friends on Facebook, asking them to fill out and/or donate greeting cards for other residents.
"The response was crazy," he said. "I got 150 cards from people and friends from all over the country. Someone sent chocolates. Someone else sent decorations."
And Lynnette Pinno, 57, of Camrose, Alberta, who regularly creates her own cards, promised to send at least a dozen cards each month.
Odessa Elementary came on board after Tyson's neighbor, John Sabatini, 51, contacted his son's teacher and principal to see if they would be interested in having students participate.
"I think it's really nice for the elderly," said his son, Cooper, 11. "A few kind words is all they need to brighten their day."
"This really teaches the kids empathy and sympathy and helps develop a respect for elderly people," said principal Teresa Love, adding that she would like to extend the program through the summer. "I think we can make it a learning opportunity as well with our kids really understanding what these seniors have done in their communities, as former military members and in their workplace."
Cards written by children sealed the deal for Sean Dimas, executive director of Elmcroft of Carrollwood.
"The message with the card piqued my interest — it was childlike and I knew that would appeal to our residents. You don't know the impact that has," Dimas said, adding that he expects residents to be on the giving as well as the receiving end of the card project.
Among those is Jane Newell, 89, a resident ambassador at Elmcroft. In her younger years, Newell went on mission trips to Haiti and Guyana, and now spends time delivering snacks to neighbors who might welcome a little company.
She was one of a handful of residents to meet with Tyson and later deliver the children's cards to other residents.
"I think this is beautiful," she said, as she pored over her card. "Just beautiful."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.