Bay Area Teen Spreads Joy and Community Through Art Classes for Seniors

Daily Point of Light # 7769 Mar 15, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Elise Fowler. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

As a competitive alpine ski racer, 16-year-old Elise Fowler, drives to Tahoe from the Bay Area every weekend. During the week, she plays varsity hockey, volunteers, participates in various extracurriculars, cares for her dog and giant bunny–Mochi and Jojo–and focuses on schoolwork as she approaches her junior year of high school. There’s not a lot of downtime among her commitments, but when there is, Elise destresses by creating art. Her childhood was filled with classes to inspire such creativity, but she stopped going when she got to high school due to schedule overload. These days, she paints and sketches independently in order to clear her head and relax.

After recognizing how much fun she and her grandparents have making art together, Elise started Branching Hearts to spread that joy. She recruits teens in the area to teach art classes at local senior centers where everyone involved can reap the benefits of intergenerational friendships and creative artistic endeavors. Along with running the organization and training new volunteers, she teaches classes in both English and Chinese, a skill nearly her entire team shares. In a world where everyone is busy and stressed, Elise and her organization are the antidote.

What inspired you to get started with this initiative?

Service learning has always been a big part of my life; I’d done volunteering, but I wanted to make an impact in my own way and take a leading role. I love art, so I figured why not start there? I have experience teaching kids’ classes but decided I wanted to try with the elderly. I’d painted with my grandparents before, and it was a lot of fun. They always enjoy talking with me and my brothers.

Elise Fowler, founder of Branching Hearts, an organization that engages high schoolers in teaching art classes to seniors.

Tell us about your volunteer role with Branching Hearts.

In August 2022, I founded the organization. I started by researching local senior centers, cold calling and sending emails. It was scary at first, because I’d never done something like that before. I ended up getting back a lot of positive responses, which was amazing. Then, I started coordinating with centers on my own. I emailed them about dates and was volunteering twice a month at each of three centers.

Eventually, it was getting to be a lot on top of sports, schoolwork and other extracurriculars, so I recruited some friends. We ended up forming the core team of around six that now does behind-the-scenes stuff like updating social media, tracking finances, scheduling classes, organizing supplies, maintaining the website, doing outreach, etc. Today, we have over 30 other volunteers not including our core team.

We’re all trying to recruit at our schools to continue to grow this, and we’re working with over 10 centers. Each center has different sections; we work with those with dementia as well as fully functioning seniors who are independent and able to do a lot more. For some centers, we bring supplies. Some of them offer their own or they buy supplies for us. We have a GoFundMe going, and we’ve raised around $850. We’re hoping to plan a fundraising event to buy more art supplies sometime soon, too.

You develop curriculum tailored for different students. Can you tell us about that process?

Every month we design projects for different centers, often based around a holiday. In February, for example, we did a lot of Valentine’s Day-themed activities. Sometimes we do the same activity for different centers, but we vary the projects depending on the seniors. For memory care units, we usually simplify our projects; we do more abstract stuff. For more independent-living centers, we do more complicated activities. We might have them following step-by-step landscape paintings, for example. And we vary the medium that we use each month. Sometimes we do painting. Sometimes we sketch or use pens. Sometimes we do crafts.

What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?

I’m hoping to recruit more volunteers from different high schools in other parts of California or even across the nation. We just started our Start Your Own Chapter program where kids can start a chapter at their own school. They’ll lead their own teams and recruit volunteers.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

The most rewarding part has been getting to hang out and talk to the seniors. People might think that a large age gap would prevent people from becoming friends, but I really enjoy sharing stories. It’s cool to trade life experiences. They have so much wisdom.

Elise hosts an orientation detailing what being a volunteer for Branching Hearts entails and how to lead classes. The Pathfinder Club, a local church group, regularly dedicates time to helping out at the senior centers.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

I’ve learned a lot about applying to college and about life. Many of the seniors love talking about their college experiences, and many went to places I’m interested in. I love hearing about their time there and what they enjoyed.

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

It’s amazing to give back to your community. A lot of us are so fortunate that we don’t take time to think about other people. High school has been really stressful lately. Sometimes, I get wrapped up in my own problems. I feel so much more relaxed after I teach my sessions, because I get to talk and make art and laugh. It’s an amazing experience to help other people and see the joy that you’re bringing them.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

If you have an idea, just go for it. I was really apprehensive at first about cold calling centers. I was afraid of rejection, that they wouldn’t want my services or wouldn’t respond. But I learned that fear of rejection isn’t something that should hold me back. I just went for it, and it helped build up my courage. If you want something, go for it.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Elise? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Kristin Park