Local Students Foster Community Connections with Seniors During the Pandemic

n the early days of the pandemic, Joanna Lacaria, Chaplain at St. Ignatius High School in Thunder Bay, wanted to find a way for students to make a difference in the lives of people who were experiencing isolation. “I knew that seniors in long-term care were one of the groups most impacted by the pandemic. Reaching out to staff at St. Joseph’s Care Group to see what students could do made sense.”

The Volunteer Services team at St. Joseph’s Care Group quickly connected these students to the 96 residents of Bethammi Nursing Home. Students began creating cards and small gifts to celebrate special holidays, as well as each resident’s birthday. Caitlin Jones, a social worker with SJCG, describes the impact: “Residents lit up when they saw their cards. Some even held on to their cards throughout the day and requested staff to read them again and again.” Students worked from the heart, preparing cards and gifts to ensure each resident received something during this difficult time, and they even sent a video message for the Easter holiday to celebrate the day. Some students and residents have stayed connected and continue to send long letters and cards to each other.

The program soon expanded to include students at St. Patrick High School, who created cards and artwork for residents at Hogarth Riverview Manor. Kim Coursolle, Chaplain at the high school, shares, “When our partnership began with Hogarth Riverview Manor, I had no idea how impactful this experience would be on our school community. It was amazing to see the students pour their passion and creativity into their cards and art pieces.”

Since the start of the program, over 3,000 cards and small gifts have been shared with residents. As Karen Shaffer, a coordinator of Volunteer Services at SJCG, points out, “The numbers are a very small part of this beautiful picture. The students and residents have created something very special during a time when connection to each other has been so important.”

Irene Forneri, a resident at Bethammi, describes the significance of the student’s contact during the pandemic: “We, residents of Bethammi Nursing Home, appreciate the fact that we have such a strong bond with the students of St. Ignatius high school – Common Bonds Class. It has been a joy to receive hand-made cards and gifts that they sent to us.”

The next step forward is to find a way for the residents and students to meet face-to-face. Many of the students who began with the program nearly two years ago are poised to graduate this year, and the experience of connecting with residents is something that will have a lasting impact on many of their lives. As one student who has been involved with the program since the beginning put it, “If we could all give without expecting anything back, the world would be 100 times better. Serving others with humility, out of love, just feels like the right thing to do.” For those involved, this quickly became much more than a project or initiative; it is a living demonstration of care, compassion, and generosity in responding to an unmet need during an incredibly challenging time.

St. Joseph’s Care Group (SJCG), located in Thunder Bay, Ontario, is a non-profit Catholic organization that targets the unmet needs of the region with Care, Compassion & Commitment. We are grateful to our nearly 400 dedicated volunteers who make a difference each and every day.