Orillia Secondary School (OSS) students refuse to let the pandemic stop them from making a difference in the lives of local seniors.
About 25 students from each grade take part in various local initiatives to try and improve the Orillia community through the Students for Change program. One of those initiatives is a 'win-win' partnership with a local retirement home.
OSS students have been spending their community service time meeting via Zoom with local seniors who are living at the Atrium Retirement Residence as part of a program called Lifetime Links, an initiative created by the Atrium's director of recreation, Elizabeth Bryk.
Bryk says the relationship between local seniors and students has been "amazing."
“The kids get their 40 hours of community services and our residents are tickled pink to have an opportunity to talk with youth and share their stories, it’s a win-win,” Bryk said.
“Anything negative I’ve ever said about this generation I take back. I am so impressed with the calibre of these kids - just thoughtful and respectful, they are truly unbelievable.”
Bryk says the Zoom meetings with local youth are helping to brighten the spirits of seniors who are struggling to be living in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It confirms to them that there is a world outside their doors. It lets these people know that they are not locked away and forgotten about here, there are still people in the community who care and appreciate them,” she said.
“One of our residents, Flo Pengilly, is 98-years-old in June, and she said to me ‘I feel like a time traveler because discovering Orillia through today’s youth feels like a whole different city, and at the end of the day we share the same town, but from different perspectives.' So they feel they are bridging the different generations.”
Bryk says after speaking to local youth, the seniors living at the Atrium feel proud of the generation for whom they paved the way.
“After talking to these kids, the residents are still saying Orillia has a heart of gold and it’s burning in the young people. They are so relieved that there are still good young people living in their town, and they haven’t all left for the big city,” she said.
Chloe Bard, co-president, and co-founder of Students for Change, says the program is important for students and the community.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone has a chance to do something for their community during this difficult time,” said the 17-year-old.
Bard says meeting with residents of the Atrium has been an eye-opening experience for students.
“A lot of them have grandchildren and great-grandchildren our age, so getting to talk to these people has been really good for them because they’ve been so isolated," she said.
While the virtual meetings with seniors have been helpful for the elderly stuck in isolation, it’s also been effective for the students, Bard says.
“It’s good for members of our club and school to see how we are making a positive impact on these people,” she said.
“For me personally, I think it’s really important because I think of my great grandmother who passed a couple of years ago. I used to love listening to her talk about her life and I found it so fascinating to hear all the things she went through.”
The Grade 12 student adds she feels it’s important for her generation to learn about previous generations.
The Students for Change program was born out of what was formally known as the Me to We program.
“In the past, we’ve raised awareness for water shortages, and we’ve done a lunch program where students prepare 75 sandwiches for the children who go to school without a lunch,” explained OSS teacher Jennifer Grace.
“This year we did a food drive where we raised over 1,000 pounds of food and took it to the Sharing Place Food Centre, and students organized a toy drive for the pediatric floor at the hospital.”
Grace says the Students for Change program has been important for the development of local youth. It allows them to better understand local issues, and it gives them an opportunity to get involved and see how their actions can make a difference.
“I think it’s also important for mental health, doing something for someone else makes you feel good and makes you feel a part of the community by experiencing positive change, even if it’s just a small thing,” she said.