November 29, 2023
• The holidays bring families together, but those who can’t celebrate with loved ones may struggle to find the seasonal spirit. One Needham organization made a note of it — many, in fact.
Needham High School alum Alexis Greenwald found that a colorful letter can go a long way toward cheering up her elderly neighbors.
The Sending Smiles Project, a card-making initiative Alexis started during the pandemic, gathers and distributes hand-written messages to older residents across town, all in an effort to bring a “a little, simple, positive moment” to someone’s day, she said.
COVID kept many people — including the Greenwalds’ grandparents — isolated from friends and family, which made connection difficult. Technology poses a challenge for older adults, Alexis said, and there’s something special and sentimental about receiving a tangible card. It can’t get lost in translation like a text message can, she said.
“If we drop these cards off and they have something to physically hold, I think we thought that it would definitely read better and also be more personalized,” Alexis Greenwald said. “Our grandparents love getting physical cards still.”
Partnering with the Needham Community Council, Needham Housing Authority, the North Hill Retirement Community and other local churches and synagogues, they’ve sent close to 2,500 cards to local residents since 2020. After starting the program as an NHS junior, Alexis — now a marketing major at Indiana University — has since handed the reins to her brother Jacob, a current NHS junior.
Jacob has recruited other high schoolers to make cards with the hope of launching a club sometime this school year. With more card-makers, the siblings have also worked to gather cards for other holidays, sending out Valentine’s Day cards for senior citizens last February. Jacob also tabled at the Harvest Fair this fall, gathering about 200 cards.
While the Greenwalds keep busy making cards at their kitchen table, Alexis said a large portion of the cards are made by other residents, either through their card-making kits or by their own design.
“We’ll get Facebook messages like, ‘We left 50 cards on your door,’ and we’re like, ‘Oh my god more cards!’” Alexis said. “I think I would say a good 80% of it is probably from the community.”
About 380 cards were recently delivered with prepared Thanksgiving meals and ingredient bags through the Needham Community Council.
NCC Executive Director Sandy Robinson said the letters serve as an extra pick-me-up during the winter and a reminder for locals that their community cares about them.
“They just appreciate knowing somebody is thinking of them, and they took some time to write a note, to draw a picture,” Robinson said. “It’s really making sure people stay connected.”
The program bridges the generational gap, connecting youth with older residents with whom they’d otherwise never interact. Jessica Moss, assistant director of counseling and volunteers at the Needham Council on Aging, said the organization’s old pen pal program between elementary students and families established long-lasting relationships.
Elderly residents have experience and stories to tell, Moss said, and sending a letter opens the door to friendship and conversation. A bright, cheerful card “screams holidays” and becomes “a tangible memory” all season long, she said.
Due to extenuating circumstances, not everyone can be with loved ones this time of year, Moss said, meaning traditions can change. The act of writing a letter, a medium seniors are comfortable with, can make all the difference, she said.
“Holiday cards are something that a lot of people take for granted,” Moss said. “They might get many, many in their mailbox every year and take a look and maybe put it on the fridge or maybe get rid of it, but for some people, they don’t get any.”
For NHA residents, the card project “brings life” into their lives, Resident Services Coordinator Laurie Blake said. It’s a refreshing change in their routine, she added.
“A letter letting somebody know they’ve been thought about, especially from younger people, I think is extremely meaningful,” Blake said, “because they’re often forgotten.”
Older people, especially those living by themselves or far from family, can struggle with loneliness over the winter months, Robinson said, which is something the cards may help remedy.
“Isolation is one of the biggest concerns for the older population that live in our community,” Robinson said. “It is so easy to get yourself isolated… Particularly during the season of celebrations, you really want somebody to remember you.”
The Sending Smiles Project plans to gather 350 holiday cards for the NCC by Dec. 9, and those who wish to participate can contact The Sending Smiles Project via their Facebook page or email address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the early days of the pandemic, Alexis recalled a visit to North Hill, where an employee told her how one resident looked forward to her card deliveries. That firsthand impact of her work is exactly what they aim for.
“It made him smile, and I saw a resident through the door waving at me and smiling,” Alexis said, “and I was like, ‘O.K., this is definitely doing good.’”