A group of Year 11s is helping seniors feel less alone during COVID-19, through phone calls, emails and creative endeavours.
Pan Pals began during the lockdown last spring, initiated by Shaan Hooey '20 and involving students from UCC, BSS, Havergal and Bayview Glen. Two Year 11 students, Justin Lee, who had been working on reducing senior loneliness since Year 8, and Apostolos Zezos, who recently had raised $25,000 for the Hellenic Homes with his friend, Jamie Selfe, took the opportunity to make a difference and joined the project.
The group continued to expand, with three more Year 11 students — Selfe, Robbie Tamblyn, and Nicholas Knoth — joining. Alex Wang also got on board to help spread the word among students and reach out to seniors’ homes.
"We connected friends with seniors from the Hellenic homes as a pilot project," says Apostolos. Adds Selfe, "We were trying to take some of the burden away from staff who had other responsibilities, especially during the pandemic."
In addition to matching students with senior pan pals, the boys organized an ongoing creative showcase, urging fellow student volunteers to create art, music, poems and short stories to share with the seniors as another avenue for connection and stimulation. They also engaged volunteers beyond their own circle, using Instagram as a platform for both planning and promotion. The team employed various marketing techniques and created weekly content.
"I reached out to seniors’ homes to establish connections and see if we could arrange for phone calls," says Tamblyn. "Things were slow getting started, but the homes were glad we got in touch."
Knoth notes, "Our goal is just to help as much as we can. The program is very fluid, so we can change the ways we help the community."
During the summer, the team had a number of students from various grades involved. Project leaders provided various themes for developing art and music, depending on the upcoming holidays, and volunteers crafted work to circulate to the homes for occasions such as Father’s Day and Canada Day.
The project became so popular that the boys had more interested volunteers than seniors until Lee made contact with Baycrest, the seniors’ home attached to the Toronto research hospital. The home already had a seniors’ support program, and Pan Pals’ activities were integrated easily.
"We provided our pan pals with a script to use in their conversations at the start, and as we went along, the more experienced volunteers would advise newcomers," says Selfe.
Since the start of the school year in September, about 16 core volunteers have continued to participate, keeping in touch with their new senior buddies and making creative content in response to monthly themes. All told, close to 150 students have already taken part.
"My pan pal is a 75-year-old woman and we have been talking every week since the spring,” Selfe says. “I’ve learned a lot from her; it’s fascinating to get a different perspective on life."
The organizers also learned how great an impact COVID-19 is having at seniors’ homes, not only in terms of infection, but in terms of the sadness brought about by isolation. As a result, they’re determined to maintain their connections.
"We’re hoping to keep this program going as long as possible, because senior loneliness isn’t only an issue during a pandemic," says Lee. "It’s great to see so many students interested, and we hope to pass this program on to future groups at UCC."
At the moment, the team’s main focus is on creative content. Music, stories, poems and artwork are kept in a shared online folder that the various homes can use as they see fit.
Says Tamblyn, "It’s nice to contribute to a greater good."