We'll now turn it over to Heather with an exclusive post that she wrote just for you!
I succeeded in getting my community schools to make valentines for me to deliver to local assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and the hospital. To understand why I did this project, I think you should know a little about me. I've never been afraid of death, I've always been afraid of vulnerability. I avoided hospitals even if I’m there to visit someone who would really enjoy seeing me. I feel bad about that afterwards. If my HOBY career has taught me one thing, its to change what I do not like and make it better. I decided that being old wasn't an illness, it wasn't a reason to lock someone away to keep us from seeing an ever constant reminder of impending mortality and the fragility of life, it was a reason to celebrate. I sat down one day and decided that since I had made cards to people in a homeless shelter in Springfield, IL and just mailed them off that I should make some cards to pass out myself. I decided that Valentines were the best option because who doesn't like a Valentine? I had such a drive I thought I could make enough Valentines for everyone in the assisted living facilities and nursing homes and the hospital—no small feat. I failed at making enough valentines for that many people. I was doing them by myself and everything started to pile up. I had made quite a few and decided I would go straight to my fear—the hospital. On February 14, 2014, I wrangled my friend Jake into coming with me. I needed someone to hold me accountable even if I wasn't telling him that it was the reason I was taking him. We walked in and I wanted to walk right back out. I could hear the beeping of the monitors and the respirators, the hiss of oxygen and the quiet honestly creeped me out. I looked at Jake and then realized that these were living, breathing people, they hadn't done anything wrong being here, they just needed help. I took a deep breath and walked up to the Nurses’ station. I smiled and asked if it was okay to hand out my valentines. The nurse agreed and smiled back at me. I didn't think they would turn me down but it was nice to know I was welcome.
The first few people I tried to hand out valentines to, didn't understand. One woman grabbed my arm and told me she needed her medication. Jake and I looked at each other, neither of us knew how to field the situation. I wasn't just going to rip my arm away from her so I tried to get her to take a valentine. She calmed down but didn't take one. We moved on to the next person. This man didn't respond to me when I talked to him. I just sat a valentine on the tray of his wheelchair and tried to not let it get to me. Third time is a charm. I walked into a woman’s room and gave her a valentine. She fawned over it, saying how pretty it was and how much did it cost. I told her I had made them and I was giving them out. She thanked me a few times and just looked at the card like it was something very precious. That’s when it really hit me. I really was making a change. I kept passing out valentines and then I decided that we had enough to go around the rest of the Hospital that is open to visitors and passed them out. I left some on tables and handed some to parents. I was hooked.
Last fall at ALA, I planned out my project start to finish pretty easily. Everyone else seemed to have much grander projects and I started to doubt myself. Until everyone I told my project to, looked my dead in the eyes and said, “That’s an amazing and touching project. It really hits home with a lot of people.” I wasn't the best at pitching my idea and planning out every minuscule task and supply was tedious since apparently putting, “Gather assorted craft supplies” is not a concise enough answer when people ask you what you need. I got rather frustrated when my group kept talking when I was trying to show them my plan and finally I just blatantly said I was doing this project to assure that when I leave this world I’ll not have the regret of helping the forgotten and to get rid of the stigma I had about elderly people. They stopped talking and looked at me. I wasn't really a big share-er in group time. I left ALA with a plan and a promise to follow through on my project. When I got home, though, my will was shaken and I was tested.
I had spent many days leading up to ALA in a hospital with a very close friend of the family on heavy life support. I had been avoiding sitting in the dark room listening to the respirator keep him alive and the monitor saying his heart was beating but not saying when he would be back to normal. The day I came back from ALA, I was about to give blood for the first time and right before I had to go into the little cubby to fill out paperwork, my dad found me and waved my over, he was upset. He told me that the family was going to take the friend off of life support. I knew I needed to be a pillar for the other members. So I went to the hospital, again, and spent the afternoon and evening talking to the friend’s sister and then I held her hand when she started to cry after they said he had gone peacefully. I don’t say this to make you sad, I say this because I was angry. I was angry that he had to be on life support for so long, angry that none of the nurses or the doctors or any of the staff really acted like it mattered. I was angry that he was just another number, another checkmark on a chart. I decided that no one should feel that way. I went home and had my inner fire for service relit with gasoline.
I talked to my school superintendent who told me he would help me anyway he could. I wrote a stellar email for him to send out to the entire faculty of the district and I waited. I made some valentines to help things along but then I started getting the emails. Teachers from all the schools in my district were on board with making some valentines. I replied with gratitude and almost cried because people were telling me how awesome it was for me to be doing this project and how they had seen how horrible and isolating nursing homes could be. In January, my school had a new semester celebration with various activities and they put on a valentine making shop without me even asking. I did get some inappropriate valentines that said “Keep on Kickin’” or “Smile while you can” and “Smile why you still have teeth! <3” While some people thought those were hilarious, I knew that those would end up going to someone who didn't think they were too funny so I took them out.
On February 12, 2015, after a last minute switch from passing them out on the 13th, I crammed four other kids into my car and filled my trunk with backpacks and paper boxes full of the valentines. We went to the Hospital first and had similar luck to my first time there. I gave the group a crash course on etiquette. “Smile, introduce yourself, offer a valentine, some might want one, some might not, talk to them if they want to talk to you, we have time. If they don’t want one, smile, wish them a Happy Valentine’s Day, and move on.” They were all mature enough to be polite and caring. I had the dream team. I told them to split up so we wouldn't all crowd the hallways and rooms. There was one woman who was cradling a baby doll and kept asking us where dinner would be served at. We kept giving her an answer but the nurse ignored the woman and I and the others exchanged glances. None of us were versed in the care of the elderly but we knew that ignoring someone isn't the right thing to do. She lit up when we gave he a valentine.
The next two stops were much more up tempo. They were assisted living facilities. The nurses were courteous and the residents were spunky. We walked through the halls and put a few valentines in every mailbox at the first stop. The second assisted living facility we knocked on doors and struck up conversations with the residents who were chatty. The group even found a resident who made elaborate doll houses and sail boats out of cardboard (we ended up giving up a lid to our box and then an empty box to him because it was so amazing what he was doing with them and we didn't need it anymore). I was feeling good, the residents and the caregivers were all smiling and telling us how amazing it was to see such a fine group of young people doing so much good. My heart swelled as I watched my friends grow as they did this project. I was proud of them.
The last stop we made was at the only real nursing home in my hometown. I was apprehensive because I had heard that it was lacking in the care it gave to the people who lived there. For the first time that afternoon, I didn't want to do this project. I didn't want to go back and see the people who couldn't do what they used to do without help. It made me sad and scared that it someday was going to be me in that situation. I looked around the car and my friends knew something was wrong with me. I voiced my concerns about going in and they told me that if we went anywhere, we should go here because they needed it the most. I swallowed my fear, put on a big smile and walked into the Nursing Home. We passed out valentines to most of the residents at dinner. That wasn't bad. Although, I did get held up by one woman who looked through my entire box of valentines before deciding that she didn't want one, that was a little frustrating and my natural instinct would be to say something bitingly sarcastic but I took a breath and realized, I wasn't doing this alone, my friends were in the other parts of the dining hall passing out valentines so it wasn't a big deal that this woman was taking so much time. We walked through the halls and gave valentines to the people who couldn't get out of bed to go to dinner. I was more comfortable now with this place and it was good to see how many people appreciated the valentines even though some of them were hardly legible because they were from kindergartners.
After I dropped my friends off at where they needed to be, I took a deep breath. I was done. With this year’s valentines at least. I thought about all the lives my friends and I brightened today and it lifted my heart. I thought about all the good times we had today, with each other and talking to the residents. I didn't do this project to get famous. I didn't go around telling anyone who would listen that I was the one doing the valentine project and I was the best and I was kindest and I was the most selfless person alive because I didn't see it that way. It was a way for me to immerse myself in something I wasn't comfortable and touch people’s lives while bettering mine. I didn't even tell the people that I was the one who initiated the project. My friends brought that up when people asked. I didn't call the paper to come get a picture of us, I didn't even get a picture with all of us in it. I just got a picture of us when we walked into the Hospital on our first visit of the day. I guess I’m not completely comfortable in a hospital or a nursing home but I know that this project is not stopping just because I’m going to college in the fall. I plan on bringing a little more love to everyone’s life and showing that service doesn't always mean doing something flashy with a lot of prestige and glamour. It can be as simple and giving someone a homemade card.