2017 - 2018 Youth Volunteer Award Recipients

Anna Wilgenbusch

“My, that is a big smile!” the first elderly women I ever visited remarked. I was on a youth group trip in Mobile, Alabama, a little ways from my hometown of Tallahassee, Florida. The woman’s name was Florence and we both laughed about the coincidence that my middle name was also Florence. I left her room amazed I could bring joy to someone just by a visit and a conversation.

Two weeks later, my family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. The impression Florence made on me was lasting. I wanted to find a way to continue bringing joy to the elderly in our new hometown. I happily discovered the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic nursing home a few miles from my new home. That summer I began volunteering there, at first as a bed-maker and activity assistant and eventually started individual visits. I valued every moment with the elderly and through them I learned to love in simple, yet heartfelt, ways.

During that same summer, I read St. Therese of Lisieux's autobiography, Story of a Soul, and immediately fell in love with her perspective. Her “little way” of loving Christ through others influenced my volunteer work in such a profound way: when I serve the elderly, I serve Christ as well! This philosophy motivates my volunteer work with the elderly more than anything.

I continued to volunteer at Little Sisters of the Poor on days that I did not have school and the next summer. When I could no longer find a ride to Little Sisters, I began walking a mile to the city bus to visit my elderly friends at Little Sisters. At the beginning of the summer, I found a meaningful ministry in playing violin for the residents of Little Sisters of the Poor. I discovered that by playing an Irish folk song, residents with memory loss spoke about their mother or father who played fiddle, and with an etude, residents with speech limitations pronounced a compliment with amazing clarity. Studies show the transformative effect music has on the brain, especially that of the elderly, and I witness this first hand with so many of the residents that I reach.

Although playing the violin was a very fruitful medium to connect with the elderly, I saw potential for an even more powerful connection through another one of my passions: poetry. So, in 2016 I initiated a project in which residents suffering from Dementia, Alzheimer’s and blindness wrote poems with my assistance. Although initially hesitant, 10 completely care-dependent residents wrote 15 poems over the summer and three of these were published in the Little Sisters of the Poor national magazine in October 2016 along with an article in which I described my volunteer work and the impact that it has had on me and the residents. Through the project, I made invaluable connections with residents by openly questioning life and the passage of time that would not have been possible without the medium of poetry.

I saw the amazing potential poetry has for intergenerational connections and I recently decided that I want to share what I had learned about writing poetry with the elderly. To do this, I started a project I call “Penetrate with Poetry” and wrote a small booklet designed to help other volunteers by explaining the method I developed to effectively write poetry with the elderly. Currently, in addition to continuing to volunteer with the elderly, I’m working to distribute this booklet to volunteers at Little Sisters, and in the future I hope to make “Penetrate with Poetry” available to a wider audience by soliciting other nursing homes and by creating a website with instructions and examples.

Although I give my time to the elderly, I know that the elderly give more to me than I could ever give to them. It is my most sincere hope that I can encourage young people to volunteer in nursing homes in their communities because the elderly I have become close with have given me an irreplaceable gift of gratitude, optimism, and joy despite their difficult circumstances.

If I am blessed with the gift of the Saint Therese Youth Scholarship, I will put it towards my college education. Next year, I am planning to attend a Catholic Liberal Arts University and study English, Spanish, and Journalism. I have been accepted to several Catholic Universities and my goal is to graduate debt-free so that I may enter a religious community and give my life to serve the Lord through others. I am confident that I will use the gifts I have been endowed with by the elderly throughout my lifetime.

To conclude, I want to share with you a poem that a dear resident, Virginia, wrote with my assistance and then was published in the Little Sisters of the Poor magazine. I think this poem highlights the optimism and the perseverance that the elderly have instilled in me.

Life Goes by So Fast

Life goes by so fast

So many good things have passed

I remember when I was little

I can almost hear Mama playing fiddle

We were very blessed

Although we withstood many tests

I look forward to tomorrow

Happiness triumphs over sorrow

Evan Poellinger

I entered the door of the senior living facility as a violinist but left as a community member who had found his niche. In the summer of 2016, I had been visiting senior living communities looking for a volunteer opportunity, specifically as a violinist.  The day I visited a senior living community in Plymouth was no exception. I was to meet with the life activities director about playing violin for the residents when she mentioned a current events club was being held on the second floor. She asked me if I wanted to check it out. I did just that. Within the span of an hour, I had found a wonderful community of older individuals who gave me gifts like no other— the gifts of openness, camaraderie and gratitude.

Initially, when I began taking part in the current events groups, I was nervous about how the seniors would react to my participation. What I found was, not only did they tolerate my presence, they actively requested for me to come back. Whenever politics came up, the seniors openly tolerated my point-of-view, even if they personally disagreed with my views. It seemed, friendship outweighed whatever disagreements they may have had over certain subjects. I feel this is a valuable lesson that too often is lost on much of modern society. This experience has affected my own interactions with others, as I feel I am more open to others’ opinions since partaking in the current events club.

Being a part of the group also allowed me to experience a sense of camaraderie. As we spoke about current events, the residents often would reminisce about their own personal experiences before connecting them to the topic. I enjoyed this part of my volunteering the most, as I too enjoy reminiscing about past experiences with others. This helped me to develop friendships with the residents, most notably a man named Cliff. Cliff and I shared a good deal in common—similar political views, interest in intellectual topics, and a love for history. Cliff would always hold me up to the group as a portrait of what he was like when he was younger.  He took particular interest when I brought in an article about hydrogen as an alternative energy source, as he had proposed it to his professor in college and was ridiculed for it due to its infeasibility. Unfortunately, just before we were to begin a new group at the residence devoted to history, Cliff passed away during a surgery. My hope is that my interaction with him helped to validate who he was and gave him the sense that there are members of a younger generation following him that share his same attributes and views. I will always take with me the lessons I gained from our friendship and finding camaraderie with others.

Just as I am grateful for the camaraderie shared with me, the seniors I have worked with have very generously expressed their gratitude for my presence. Whether I am escorting residents of Saint Therese to mass, playing the violin, or being involved in casual conversation, I always receive a generous amount of praise and gratitude. This gift of gratitude makes working with seniors especially rewarding, and encourages my own sense of appreciation that I have found through this community of people.

Through my interactions with seniors, I have gained insights that will greatly assist me in whatever endeavors I may pursue in life. Observing the open mindedness of senior residents has allowed me to become more open-minded, which will help me as I seek jobs and form relationships with others. The camaraderie I felt with the residents has helped motivate me to find strong relationships in other areas that I may need support in, among my peers at school and my teachers. Finally, I have not only felt the gratitude of senior residents, but have become very grateful for the privilege of working with members of the senior community. So, next time I am walking through an unknown door, I will put these lessons I have learned to good use.