The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mom is stuck inside amid the coronavirus outbreak. Teens we never met gave us hope amid hardship.

Joy Anderson, mother of the author, with one of the letters sent to her Salt Lake City care center by middle school teacher Kathy Howa and her students. (Nick Zullo)

Like thousands of Americans with elderly loved ones, I anticipated getting a phone call from my mother’s Salt Lake City care center last week, informing me no more visits would be allowed for several weeks — possibly months — to protect vulnerable residents from coronavirus.

When the call came, I cried. Of course, I was relieved to know precautions were being taken, but I also knew it was possible for a person to give up when overwhelmed with loneliness and a broken heart. With our thrice-weekly in-person visits coming to an abrupt halt, how would I keep my 79-year-old mother’s spirits up?

Fortunately, somebody stepped up to help. More than 100 people, in fact. They’re all teenagers I’ve never met.

Last week, after I wrote a post on Facebook about my sadness over the new “normal,” I heard from a high school friend I hadn’t seen in more than 30 years. Kathy Howa, now a middle school health teacher and softball coach in Salt Lake County, read my post and came up with a plan.

Since her students (at West Jordan Middle School) and her softball team (at Salt Lake City’s Rowland Hall) would be studying at home online, Howa wondered, “How about if I give my kids something to do right now that is bigger than themselves?”

“After hearing about your mom, I thought, ‘What if we could cheer her up and the other residents by writing them letters?’” she told me. “I asked the kids to imagine how they would feel if they suddenly couldn’t see their own families or friends.”

A few hours later, letters addressed to “A Special Person” began arriving in Howa’s email box at her home in Midvale, where she plans her online lessons.

“I’m so sorry that you can’t see your families,” wrote Ryan Christensen, 14. “If I know one thing about humans, it’s that when they go through some bad part in their life, they are strong. I believe that you can get through this bad part in your life and will be strong all the way through.”

“What things do you enjoy doing in your free time?” asked eighth-grader Kiseki Jensen. “I like to sing and dance to Korean pop music. I also have a 5-year-old dog named Ganmo. She is small and very cute. I hope this letter cheers you up! We all love and care for you, so look forward to tomorrow and I hope every day will be filled with love and happiness.”

Leah Larsen, 14, passed along some sage advice from Mister Rogers in her letter:

“What's your favorite experience you have had in your life?” she wrote. “I love this Mr. Rogers quote. It says, 'When I was a boy and I would see scary things, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

“I find this very meaningful right now because there is always someone willing to help, even if it’s just the small things like buying someone’s groceries,” Leah’s letter continued. “I hope you stay healthy during this time and think of the positive things in life. Hope you have a wonderful day because you deserve it.”

On they went, dozens in all, with more on the way. Howa said she is hopeful some of her students will develop pen-pal relationships with the seniors and help them find calm in the uncertainty and chaos.

As I read the letters the teens wrote, I felt more reassured and so did my mother.

“What a beautiful thing they have done,” she told me over the phone this week. “Getting through this is hard, but because of the letters, we know that nobody is being forgotten. It’s so sweet that these kids care.”

I have to agree.

Because there is no telling how long the threat of coronavirus will be with us, I know I won’t be able to take my mom out in her wheelchair this spring to soak up sunshine and laugh at the ducklings in the courtyard. We can’t watch her favorite “Ancient Aliens” episodes together, discuss the day’s headlines in person (we now rely on FaceTime) or pick out nail polish colors for her latest snazzy manicure.

Until we can pick up our happy routines again, we know we’ll get through, thanks to a bunch of caring middle schoolers who also have been forced to spend time alone, away from some of the people they love. They’ve shown us hope amid the hardship.

My mom and about 30 other nursing home residents are taking their kind words to heart.

“Have a nice day — there is no one quite like you,” 14-year-old Quinton Robinson reminded them this week. “I think you are wonderful.”

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