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Good Neighbors: Pandemic Pen Pals

Residents in several WNY nursing homes who've spent the past year isolated from their families have teenage pen pals to befriend thanks to a Mount St. Mary student.

KENMORE, N.Y. — Lily Clark, a Mount St. Mary Academy freshman from Niagara Falls, said she was heartbroken when she read an article over the summer describing the loneliness of nursing home residents who weren't allowed to see their loved ones because of restrictions imposed due to the pandemic. So she wanted to do something to help them.

"I was just thinking how bored I was and I can't imagine how bored and lonely they felt. So I wanted to come up with a COVID-friendly way to get those residents and the girls at Mount St. Mary's to participate in the community and be able to get in touch with one another, and so I came up with writing letters," said Clark.

In the fall of 2020, Clark pitched the idea of a pen pal program to her fellow classmates in Mount St. Mary's Serve Club and she began calling local nursing homes to gauge interest.  

"Given all the changes and restrictions we jumped right on board," said Jillian Vaughan, Activities Director at Harris Hill Nursing Facility.  "The residents, it just opens the door to aiding in them reminiscing, reflecting on their life, thinking of their achievements and opening up and sharing it with the students. It's a great platform to getting them talking and sharing some memories."

Soon enough, 19 students were writing letters to residents at Harris Hill, Humboldt House, Orchard Brooke, Elderwood, and other facilities in Western New York. 

Traditionally, members of the Serve Club at Mount St. Mary Academy in Kenmore would provide community service through food and clothing drives and packing backpacks, but the pandemic created challenges. So Clark's pen pal idea was a perfect way for the students to safely make a positive impact in the community.

"We knew things would look different. We had to reimagine how we could serve," said Danielle Burns-Heim, moderator of the Serve Club and Academic Learning Center Coordinator at Mount St. Mary. "As the moderator, one of the blessings I think that came out of this pandemic is the girls did that. There was this desire to do more and their willingness to overcome the challenges that they're facing and rise to the occasion and find ways to give back."

Clark even asked the students and nursing home residents to fill out forms describing their hobbies and backgrounds to pair up the pen pals who have similar interests.

"I'm really excited about this. It makes me feel young again, having these youngsters writing to me," said Aileen Harrington, a Harris Hill resident who turned 74-years-old in December. "I love the girls so much and I've only had a couple letters. But I'm learning so much about them and they're learning about me."

For the students, putting pen to paper to write a letter, and decorating them, has been a welcome change from traditional ways of communicating through text and email. And both the students and nursing home residents find it a thrill to get a letter in the mail.

"Receiving a letter is so much different than receiving a text message or an email cause it's so exciting. It's like Christmas morning when you open up a gift. It just really exciting like that," said Clark.

And the only thing better, Clark said, is being able to give that gift to others who are lonely.

"At the end of the day, I just smile thinking about the residents opening up the letters and having something to look forward to," she said. "I really just got a lot of happiness and a lot of joy out of this. And I'm just so proud of the girls at school."

Although most nursing facilities in New York State can now allow visitors if they meet restrictions, the Serve Club at Mount St. Mary Academy plans to keep the pen pal program going indefinitely.

If you know of a person, group, or organization that should be featured as a "Good Neighbor" on Channel 2 News, email details to Melissa.Holmes@wgrz.com. To see previous "Good Neighbor" stories, click the links below.