There’s no denying the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed many facets of everyday life. From virtual school and working at home, to avoiding contact with family and friends in favor of social distancing, the pandemic has left many feeling isolated and lonely.
That’s especially true of senior citizens living in long-term care facilities. One of the most at-risk groups for COVID, seniors in congregate living communities have found themselves confined to their rooms or apartments, unable to interact with each other, much less their loved ones outside the facility.
Their plight has become central to the work of Hearten, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded and run by R.J. Reynolds High School students. Hearten presidents Ava Ginn and Matt Valaoras, juniors at Reynolds, say the group’s work in local retirement homes such as Arbor Acres and Salemtowne has provided a means of connection for many of the facilities’ residents.
“My grandparents went to Arbor Acres. They were in the retirement home, so it’s nice to help out there,” Valaoras says. “Because if they were there in that position, if they were struggling at all, I would want someone to help them. So it’s nice to do that.”
Hearten was founded in 2017 by Ginn’s and Valaoras’ older sisters, Isabelle and Allie, respectively. The student-run organization focuses on providing person-to-person service opportunities that give volunteers the chance to not only give their time, but also make a connection with the people they’re helping.
Both Ginn and Valaoras got involved with the group as middle schoolers, and this past year they took over as the organization’s co-presidents, carrying on the legacy their sisters started.
“We were helping out with the projects they were doing then, and now it’s our turn to take over,” Ginn says. “It’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s nice to be able to have some control and be able to help others.”
Prior to COVID, the organization’s work included reading to seniors in assisted-living communities, tutoring elementary school students, and purchasing and delivering food to those in need. But since the pandemic came on, the group has had to figure out new ways to not only help out, but also maintain those connections they enjoyed with in-person service.
“We’ve definitely gotten a lot more creative with the stuff we’ve done since COVID hit,” Valaoras says. “We directly asked places what they need from us so we could be as helpful as possible.”
Among their projects this past year, Hearten members have created teacher-appreciation bags for 140 educators in Winston-Salem and worked with an elementary school to make Valentine’s Day cards with the students to deliver to patients in a hospital acute-care unit, as well as to local assisted-living facilities. Many of the projects have been designed to not only facilitate connections between Hearten volunteers and seniors, but to also allow isolated assisted living residents to connect with others, as well.
“Now we focus on projects we can do without being in-person,” Ginn says. “We write letters and became pen pals with some of the nursing home residents. And we painted rocks for their gardens and made signs so when they have drive-by visits, they can talk to their families — little things like that, and it’s been really fun.”
Creating those relationships between volunteers and those they are helping has been particularly rewarding, both before and during the pandemic.
“The person-to-person stuff we do has allowed us to form connections and really get to know the people we’re helping, and they get to know us too, which is great,” Ginn says. “And it’s just nice to get to help them and get to know them.”
Both Ginn and Valaoras say being able to continue their work with Hearten has been personally helpful in contending with their own pandemic fatigue.
“I feel like I’ve been in my own bubble, so it’s nice to help others,” Ginn says. “The pandemic has obviously caused changes because we can’t do as much face-to face-stuff, but it has allowed us be more creative and find other ways to help the community.”
Ginn and Valaoras say the group has enjoyed active participation from their fellow students, as well. They estimate about 100 of their classmates have volunteered for Hearten service projects over this school year.
“My friends are always super excited, and they’re always asking me when the next volunteering opportunity is happening because they really want to help out,” Ginn says.
Both Ginn and Valaoras say they feel fortunate to be able to continue Hearten’s work despite the challenges the pandemic has presented. And they’re grateful for both the opportunity to help others and the perspective it has brought to their lives.
“It has definitely made me a happier person just to be able to help people,” Valaoras says. “A little bit busier, but that’s really no problem — just happy to help people out if they’re in need. I feel like we have an obligation to help other people, and with all the blessings we get, it’s nice to give back.”
To learn more about Hearten’s work, volunteer or make a tax-deductible donation, visit heartennc.org.