Eleven packages arrived at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community in early November — each one carried a handwritten note, three beaded bracelets and a pinch of confetti.
JMU students put these packages together during a virtual event coordinated by RISE U, an organization affiliated with the local United Methodist faith community RISE, to create connections with seniors who may feel isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My goal was for students to feel like they were a part of something bigger than themselves but also to find some new friends,” RISE college and connections coordinator Christine Jones said.
Because RISE U is a new college ministry, Jones said she tried to think of a service event that’d attract and excite students while still being online. The idea to give to a retirement community came from her past working in senior services, Jones said, because she’s seen how lonely older adults can feel. She planned the event with RISE U intern and JMU alumna Ashlyn Johns (’20), who said she was excited about the idea and the potential to form new connections between students and seniors.
Jones said she and Johns assembled supply boxes that were sent to 11 students who signed up. Along with stationary and bracelet supplies, Johns said each box included a padded envelope that was stamped and pre-addressed to the VMRC so the students would only have to seal it and put it in the mail to be sent.
The students opened their supply boxes on camera at the Oct. 24 event held over Zoom, Jones said, and went into breakout groups to get to know each other while making the bracelets. She said psychology professor Natalie Kerr also led a discussion on the science of loneliness, which Johns said both seniors and students may be feeling at this time because of the pandemic.
“I personally have been feeling super lonely in all of this,” Johns said. “It was a really, really nice way to create community.”
Johns said the bracelets are supposed to serve as a visual symbol for the senior residents so they’re reminded that they’re not alone. Rather than only making one, she said the students assembled three bracelets and encouraged their senior recipient to pass the extras along to others at the VMRC to create a “ripple effect.”
Sophomore dance and psychology double major Caraline Christie, a student who participated in the event, said she had prior experience connecting with seniors. Growing up, she said she was part of a dance company that frequently performed at senior facilities and she enjoyed interacting with the residents. She also said she’s been involved in a dance program at JMU where participants work with seniors with Parkinson’s disease.
“With in-person visitation not being a reality anymore, I was really excited for the opportunity to find a new way to connect with [seniors], and this event seemed like a really great way to do that,” Christie said.
Jones said the event was a success and that some students have continued to connect with RISE U, including Christie. She said she received emails from students afterward about their appreciation for the opportunity to give.
“It was a really beautiful event that just kind of got things rolling for us,” Jones said. “I still get warm fuzzies every time I think about it.”
Although Jones said she hasn’t heard any personal stories of correspondence yet, she has hope that some seniors will write back to the students. Christie said she’s enjoyed writing letters since she was younger when she had pen pals because of how special it makes the recipient feel. She said she hopes to receive a letter back from her senior buddy in order to continue to create a meaningful relationship.
“I think I did it really as much for my joy as I did for theirs,” Christie said. “It’s really crucial to be able to find ways that we can kind of combat some of the effects of COVID-19, such as loneliness, in a way that can bring together multiple groups of people.”
Contact Kamryn Koch at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.