And they remark on all the chirping since the shutdown.
“I was thinking about what you told me — I can hear the birds so much,” Heimbach marveled on a recent call.
They talk like old friends, but they have never met in person; three months ago, they didn’t even know about each other. But in March, Heimbach’s Alexandria school, St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, and Gillespie’s retirement community, Goodwin House, with locations in Falls Church and Alexandria, embarked on the Companion Program, a partnership to connect teenagers with seniors in a sort of coronavirus-era pen pal relationship. For the past two months, 28 pairs have been communicating regularly.
The two organizations already had a history, with many of the school’s alumni, parents, grandparents and former faculty moving to Goodwin House, said Valentina Raman, the school’s director of service learning and social entrepreneurship. “We have a shared mission and shared roots in an Episcopal identity,” including performances and other intergenerational activities, she said.
When the pandemic struck, separating students and residents from their peers and the larger world, administrators from both organizations brainstormed about how to help them. The partnership seemed like a good way for students to use their time constructively, and beneficial for seniors, whose social activities at the residence have been curtailed as older people are at particular risk of succumbing to the virus.
“There was a mutual need. Our students were also feeling the effects of not being able to see their friends; they also felt the loneliness and isolation of the moment,” Raman said. To help make good matches, students submitted a line or two about their interests and their experiences with older adults. So much demand arose that some had to join a waiting list.
“The students are having a lot of fun,” Raman said. “They love listening, they are naturally curious, and they love to hear about the history of Alexandria,” where many of the seniors lived in their youth. “Some have found connections, where their grandparent actually was friends with the companion. One of them actually put together a photo album of photos that the companion didn’t have.”
For Goodwin House residents, “I have really seen an increase in happiness for those who are participating,” said Tiffany Proctor, director of life enrichment there. “They really care about their companion, and they really feel that their companion cares about them.
“The maturity of the students has really surprised me,” she added. “They have been dedicated, they have been genuine, it hasn’t been forced.”
Before the pandemic, Gillespie, a retired musician, attended church and participated in activities such as the residence’s spring fling, a talent show for which she sings Cole Porter songs and other popular tunes from the previous century.
But since mid-March, she has been confined to residence grounds, unable to see her brother who lives nearby, unable to socialize up close or share meals with fellow residents. “It’s been very hard. I’m legally blind and not able to use a computer, so all the computer things that people do on a computer, I’m not able to do,” she said.
She said she and Heimbach hit it off on the first call: “It went great; we just realized that we had a lot of meeting of the minds on things.” They talked about their high school teachers and the Cold War, which Heimbach is studying and Gillespie lived through.
“I shared with her my experiences of it. My father was the Air Force attache in Vienna in the early 1960s” when Gillespie had just graduated from high school, she said. “The Iron Curtain, the barbed wire and the minefields in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were very close to Vienna, and whenever we had people from the States, he always drove them to see the minefields and the barbed wire, so they could really see the Soviet Union had really constructed a prison for their people.”
They discuss the challenges of living through a health crisis that has paralyzed much of the world’s normal activities. They discover they have strange things in common, such as that both their teachers for American history were also wrestling coaches. Often they talk for an hour, sessions Gillespie finds herself looking forward to.
“I’ve come to feel that [the lockdown] is the hardest thing I’ve had to face in my life, and I’ve faced a lot,” Gillespie said. “Talking with Callie during the pandemic is the most fun thing I do. It’s fresh and different. One thing about the social isolation is the monotony of it. Of course, Callie’s youth and effervescence is absolutely wonderful.”
Heimbach looks forward to it, too. “She has so much interesting stuff to talk about because she’s so engaged. I’m kind of amazed that she’s so able to be happy and positive, being cooped up like that.”
Her mother, Deasy Heimbach, said Gillespie has become an integral part of pandemic life for her daughter, who before the shutdown had an active extracurricular menu of running track and leading a club.
“I can’t think of anyone, ever, that Callie has spent this much time on the phone with,” she said. “Callie at the dinner table will talk about things she and Ms. Gillespie have talked about. You can see a little pep in her step after each conversation.”
Not all the interactions are by phone; some pairs use Skype, Zoom, or email. But for many students, the phone has an old-fashioned, exotic aura, and it can also confer important skills for adulthood. To help ease them into it, administrators created a script for an introductory phone call, with suggested conversation starters. They also provided training for students on landlines, cold-calling and the experiences of older adults, who might be hard of hearing or have cognitive issues that require more patience.
Abhay Mathur, 15, said talking on the phone with Shirley Warthen, 87, felt strange initially. “Miss Shirley just has a telephone, not a cellphone,” he said. “The first time it was kind of awkward.” But Warthen had a list of questions prepared, which helped smooth the way. Now they chat a couple of times a week. “The time passes by fast,” he said.
They talk about issues like what age kids should get their first cellphone, and what Alexandria was like when Warthen was a girl. Both are among the youngest of their siblings, “so we really bond over being the last to get stuff, the last to go to college,” he said.
Although Mathur also chats with his grandparents remotely, “I think being able to talk with somebody outside my family is really good,” he said. “Miss Shirley has a lot of advice to give me, and it’s nice to have it from someone outside of my family.
“We ask each other questions. Like really deep questions. Like, would you rather live on a boat or on an island?” he said. “We both said boat, but we both agreed that it would be really expensive.”
For Warthen, who hasn’t ventured beyond the grounds of Goodwin House since February, the connection has been a lifeline. “Being locked into a small area, we are just on one floor of this building — nobody comes in and out except the aides and the doctors,” she said. Talking with Mathur is “very nice. I can say, ‘What’s it like in the outside world?’ ”
The students can receive community service hours for participating, and administrators say they hope it can be replicated in other communities. Someday, when the pandemic is over, they will hold a reception where all the participants can finally meet face-to-face.
“That’s kind of our carrot,” Proctor said, “where we can get to that point where we can hug each other, have a slice of cake.”
For now, they plan to continue chatting remotely at least through summer, and possibly beyond.
“The hope is that this is a companion program in perpetuity,” Raman said. “This is such a simple and meaningful way for intergenerational relationships to be fostered. . . . The hope is that we’re planting seeds for something even greater to grow, and shifting to a society that’s more connected and more supportive of one another, even beyond this moment.”