In normal times, Meggie Pina spends a lot of time visiting the thousands of elder residents of Monterey County’s nursing homes. “My primary mission is to improve the quality of life for residents who live in long-term care facilities,” she says. That happens largely through unannounced visits and interviews with residents. Pina is also responsible for investigating reports of abuse, and responding to inquiries from people seeking information on different facilities and payment options.
But these are not normal times, and visits to these facilities stopped in March when the pandemic struck. Instead Pina, the Monterey County ombudsman program manager at nonprofit Alliance on Aging, and 19 volunteer ombudsmen started making phone calls.
While that was a good way to check in on compliance, it felt incomplete as far as connecting with people. On a phone call to Cottages of Carmel, she heard staff had made a cheery bulletin board full of cards residents had received, and Pina got an idea: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get a card to every long-term resident in Monterey County?”
That would mean a total of 2,846 cards going to residents at 48 assisted living facilities and 16 skilled nursing facilities in Monterey County. About three weeks into SIP, Pina made a Facebook page asking people to make and donate cards with positive messages.
Within two months, she’d received more than double that.
Students at Bay View Academy in Monterey produced more than 1,000. Suzanne du Verrier, a volunteer ombudsman at Alliance on Aging, gathered more than 1,000. She put a blurb about the project, which Pina named Cards for Humanity, in the newsletter for Active Seniors Inc., and all of a sudden found herself picking up packs of cards from strangers’ porches all over Salinas.
“When I first did it, I thought I’d be happy if we get 100,” du Verrier says. “Seeing people so willingly wanting to help – it was a win/win. It was a joyful thing to do. All who participated said, ‘I really needed a project, I needed something to do.’ It was therapy.”
Du Verrier spent time folding cards with her granddaughter, a recent graduate from Salinas High School, and incorporates pen drawings mailed in from her 8-year-old granddaughter in Illinois.
At 71, du Verrier is herself a senior, typical for Alliance on Aging volunteers. As an ombudsman, Du Verrier regularly visits residents at two nursing homes – but for now, she calls. “We’re just making sure everything is right, such as they do have a mask and is the staff wearing a mask,” she says. “And we ask, is there something we can do for you? We just have a nice conversation.”
A total of 5,575 cards came in, and Pina read every one. Some were typed, others handwritten, some in cursive, others were painted or colored by kids too young to write. But they shared messages of affection, written to unseen strangers. One child wrote, “you’ll be loved forever,” another “you’re my new friend now.”
Every long-term resident got a card, plus 400 each went to Meals on Wheels of the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula. Dozens went to senior housing complexes. Postage exceeded $1,000.
The Alliance on Aging also purchased iPads for the county’s 16 skilled nursing facilities in June to help residents stay connected to family outside. “For the most part, they’re just grateful to talk to someone,” Pina says. “They’re being asked to isolate in their rooms, they’re eating meals in their rooms. There are no longer group activities, so there’s no social component. These facilities can feel very clinical or institutional, and they’ve taken away things that can create communities inside these buildings.”
Du Verrier hasn’t heard from any of the recipients of Cards For Humanity, but says she didn’t expect to. “We know the clientele we’re working with,” she says. “We just wanted them to have something; many of them don’t get any mail at all. We just don’t want them to be lonely.”