GREENSBORO, N.C. -- There was one person Judy Kiser was looking for as she rolled her walker through the high school students and senior citizens celebrating together on the patio at Heritage Greens Senior Living Community last Sunday afternoon.
"She's coming; she's in the black," Sydney Smith, the teenage organizer of the gathering told her, as Smith beckoned her classmate Bridget Peck closer.
As soon as Peck bent down to ask, "How are you?" Kiser reached out for a hug, her keys jangling on the plastic lanyard around her wrist as they embraced.
Recently, Grimsley High School students who have been corresponding with Heritage Greens seniors this school year got to meet their pen pals for the first time.
Smith said she started a club for students at her school to write to residents at the senior community as something to do while school was in remote learning during the pandemic.
"When covid first started I was pretty bored and my friends were pretty bored and we couldn't hang out with each other, because you know, covid," she said.
She said she thought communicating with an older person could be interesting, and that's where the idea for the club came from. At first, she said, she started out with five of her friends. But as word spread, other students asked to join.
Smith, Peck and other students started writing to their pen pals at the beginning of this school year.
For Smith, the social isolation of the pandemic without in-person school or activities was challenging. But she said writing back and forth with her pen pal, Betty Ries, helped her.
"I felt like I had another friend through covid," she said. And in some ways, she felt freer to share her thoughts with someone not already involved in her life.
"It's kind of nice talking to a stranger because you can tell them about what's going on, what's happening, and there's no repercussion," she said.
Gina Rice, the wellness director at Heritage Greens, worked with Smith to make Smith's idea of a pen pals club a reality.
Rice said some of her residents have limited vision or intellectual or memory impairments. Also, she said, some people felt self-conscious about their writing and needed encouragement to write to their pen pals.
"It thrills me to see them step out of their comfort zones and share their stories," she said.
And for some residents who were no longer able to write, Rice said she helped them to at least send a card.
Meanwhile, Smith took on a mission to ensure all the Heritage Greens senior pen pals got letters, even sometimes pestering some of the Grimsley students a little to get their letters written on time, she said.
She said she would drive around to the students' houses every couple of weeks to pick up or drop off letters, which proved to be a good opportunity to see classmates, catch up with them, and find out how things were going with their pen pals.
Heritage Greens has been open to visitors since February and the vast majority of the residents are vaccinated, Rice said. The party last Sunday was planned as an end-of-the-school-year opportunity for the pen pals to finally meet.
Not everyone could make it. For example, one student had to attend a family event, Smith said, and one of the Heritage Greens residents moved shortly before the gathering. Smith and her friends helped ensure that everyone got somebody to talk to at some point, even the people whose pen pals could not attend.
Ella Sharpe, a Grimsley junior, brought a purple and white flower for her pen pal, 101-year-old Helen Adamson, who handed her a recently written card.
They've had some similar experiences during the pandemic, including spending many months staying home and now slowly starting to go out again. Both recently went to church services again for the first time during the pandemic, with Adamson attending what she described as a beautiful Mother's Day service outdoors.
At the far side of the gathering, Peck and Kiser were also seated at metal table, getting to know each other better. Kiser told Sharpe about her past career as a math teacher and how she enjoyed seeing how much her students had improved from when they started.
Peck, a junior, told Kiser she is planning on college but is not sure yet what career she wants.
Later on in the gathering, Peck snagged a deck of cards from the games table and taught Kiser how to play gin rummy. They laughed and smiled together as they played.
"I loved the letters she sent me," Kiser said. "So kind. So sweet."