Maya Joshi, a graduating high school senior and a twin, has a wonderful family life. They’re the kind of crew that has family board game nights and cooks dinner as a group at least once a week. Their chocolate lab even has his own Instagram page. Perhaps that’s why this Chicago native is sensitive to those around her, particularly in older generations, who aren’t as lucky to have close social connections.
“I think sometimes, as youth, we take for granted that we’re in a community setting all the time, and we’re constantly surrounded by people and opportunities to make new friends. A lot of people don’t have that,” she says.
When the pandemic-driven lockdowns went into effect in 2020, Maya took action.
“There were a lot of news articles coming out about seniors at care facilities and how COVID-19 was just brutal in those circumstances, and I remember one clip of people being isolated to 65 square feet of space and not being able to see anyone smile for days or weeks,” she recalls.
She thought of her grandparents and the many ways she connected with them through art over the years. She’d knit blankets with her grandma or paint with her grandpa, and everyone had a good time. With plenty of time to spare, she reached out to friends and senior care facilities with an idea: connect kids and seniors with fun activities and watch the friendships grow. And do it all online. Today, her 501(c)(3), Lifting Hearts with the Arts, has organized over 7,100 meetings with 53 care facilities in seven states.
Volunteers get to know their senior counterpart through weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one meetings over Zoom, FaceTime, and as COVID restrictions are lifted, in-person. Creative group activities are also in the mix like “Never Have I Ever Bingo” or Google Earth tours. Name That Tune is also popular.
“My Spotify playlist has changed a lot over the course of meeting with seniors, definitely for the better,” Maya says.
While it may have started out as a way to relieve the negative effects of social isolation for seniors, Maya feels as close to her senior friends as she does to those in high school citing that it’s helped her learn more about herself in the process. She explains how growing up in Chicago, she had a very different childhood from one of her older friends who was raised in rural Iowa.
“Even though I can’t connect with him over Taylor Swift’s new album or pop culture, we can connect over other things,” she explains. “I love roller coasters and he loved Go Karts when he was younger. Recently, one of his favorite hobbies has been hitting the max speed [on motorized grocery store scooters] and speeding through aisles. He’ll tell me about narrow misses in his care facility when he’s trying to make a tight turn. I think stories and moments like that are amazing.”
Natalie Morro, the Illinois Chapter Leader, has been a part of the group since spring of 2020 and was also surprised at how easily the friendships developed. She’s even continued her calls with a friend who has transitioned back to independent living.
“It was really cool to see how even though we belong to completely different generations, we still had things in common,” Natalie recalls about her experience. “I really like arts and crafts, so I loved leading some painting lessons over Zoom. We also did lots of trivia, which I really liked, because I got to learn things.”
The feedback from both volunteers and seniors has been equally as enthusiastic. Natalie also notes Maya’s leadership as being integral.
“Maya was always a very good communicator, in my eyes. She was always reaching out, and you could tell that she was very passionate about this program and its and its mission,” she says.
Over time, the group has secured four corporate sponsorships and grants and has raised over $9,000 to donate new and gently-used devices to care facilities lacking ways to connect.
“We realized early on the technological divide in care facilities, especially in the city, because I would cold call care facilities and they’d be like, ‘We would love to participate in this program, but we only have one iPad, and like 300 residents,’” Maya recalls.
Events like the virtual fun run, designed to raise funds for devices, have also been a resounding success, but it hasn’t all gone so smoothly. When initially reaching out to care facilities, she used the “Contact Us” form on their websites. Her inquiries were met with calls asking about her medical conditions and when she’d be interested in moving in.
Even so, Maya credits her success to what she’s learned from trial and error as well as feedback. As her mother’s biggest fan, she has also been inspired by the resilience and openness that has been modeled for her from day one.
“When [my mom] hears good news, she celebrates with that person as if they’re her own family member. She’s always been this really inspiring shoulder to lean on if I’m going through a tough time. Like everyone, she has a lot going on in her life, but she always takes a moment and always has time and space to be there for other people.”
How can other people help? Maya encourages students who are middle school-aged and older as well as care facility activity directors and facility coordinators to reach out to Lifting Hearts. But for those who don’t fall into one of those categories, just be friendly and use your own strengths.
“If you’re a younger person living in a condo building and you see an older person in the elevator whom you always hold the door for, go beyond that and start a conversation. Ask them about what their job was and how fulfilling it was for them, and just start a conversation,” Maya suggests. “What’s the worst that can happen?”
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Maya? Find local volunteer opportunities.