Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
The bag contained everything she needed. Soup. Beans. Pasta. Coffee.
Then, when Cynthia Bemis thought she had reached the bottom of her groceries from the food pantry at the Northshore Senior Center in Bothell, there was one more thing: A card from someone she didn’t know, telling her about their life, and asking about hers.
“I have it sitting right here,” Bemis said recently. “It has a picture of a coffee cup and says, ‘With a little faith and a lot of coffee, anything is possible. Wishing you blessings every day, Sandra.'”
In these days of isolation and our new normal, it’s the little things that get you through the big unknowns.
Bemis, 69, broke her hip in March. After being treated at Swedish Medical Center, she was tested for COVID-19 and went into isolation, waiting for her results, which ultimately came back negative. She reached out to the Bothell senior center, which helped with not just meals and groceries, but with painted rocks from a group called “Bothell Rocks,” a bunch of tulips, a word-search book — and that handwritten card.
“You made it through, but you felt like you were on a deserted island, that you were all alone,” Bemis said. “It was totally profound. I can’t put words to it, but that act in itself was tremendous.”
The card-writing project, similar to others in the country, was started by Tinte Cellars owners Tim and Teresa Spellman Gamble, who is the daughter of former Washington state Gov. John Spellman. Spellman died Jan. 16, 2018, and his wife, Lois, died nine days later, from what their daughter believes was a broken heart.
Seeing Gov. Jay Inslee’s response to the coronavirus pandemic made Spellman Gamble wonder what her father might have done as governor, but more how difficult this time would be for their family. Not being able to see them, for them to be isolated. Not being able to bury them together, as they did two years ago.
Today’s social distancing means social isolation for some seniors, “which can have a massive negative impact on their mental health,” Spellman Gamble said.
She reached out to Corey Lowell at the Northshore Senior Center in Bothell — the largest senior center in the state of Washington — for some ideas about how to get cards to their clients.
“Their response was immediate,” Spellman Gamble said. “They said, ‘This could be a real life-changer.'”
Lowell, who heads programming at the Bothell, Mill Creek and Kenmore senior centers, suggested the cards be put into the grocery bags given out at the twice-weekly food pantry, where seniors can choose from items donated by local businesses and restaurants.
The pantry opens at 11 a.m., and a line forms 30 minutes before. When it first started, 10 or 15 people showed up. That number has now grown to 300 people. In addition, an average of 90 people pick up hot lunches that they used to come in and enjoy together, five days a week.
The food pantry and the meals are as close as Lowell and his staff could come to rebuilding the community that thrived at the centers, which serve 7,000 people a year.
“Loneliness was one of our biggest concerns,” Lowell said. “We didn’t want them to feel that they were forgotten and wanted them to know that someone is thinking of them.
At first, Spellman Gamble enlisted her husband and two sons — ages 16 and 18 — to write some cards.
“I was blown away when my kids were so eager to help,” Spellman Gamble said. “Perhaps all it took was for them to think about their grandparents, and others like them. That need to connect.”
She rallied family, friends and the Tinte community to join in on the card-writing campaign, with a few restrictions: No religious themes, phrases or quotes. Just write a letter to a stranger, and think about an older person. Ask what brings them joy. What kind of music they like.
Remember, too, that they are probably in a room. Ask about the stars, looking out the window, what they know about astronomy. Tell them about your day. If you’re making a cake, ask them about desserts, or cooking.
Encourage them to think about a time when they were surrounded by great friends, and to hold them in their hearts.
“If we could get everyone to pause in our busy lives for a moment, and think about someone else,” Spellman Gamble said, then paused. “I just want this time to be remembered for quality time, and quality acts. It’s something that everyone can do.”
Fred De Sanctis, 78, has been coming to the Bothell senior center for a long time, and misses sharing meals with friends. Now, he picks up his lunch and groceries — and a small gesture of kindness that he didn’t know he needed.
“Those cards,” he said the other day. “They didn’t know me, but they wished me well. It’s something you don’t expect. You dig down to the bottom of the bag and there it is. It makes you feel good.”
Six feet away, Mary Cruver expressed gratitude for the cards she finds in her groceries: “They say we’ll get through this, but I’ve never felt so alone in my life,” she said. “The notes were so helpful. It makes me feel bad that I can’t thank these people.”
Barbara Anderson, also in line at the food pantry, remembers every card she has received. One had a quote from Toni Morrison. Another told her she was beautiful, and reminded her that she was special.
“It was really sweet,” Anderson said. “Part of the reason I come is because I’m not able to go into the store. But I still need to see people face-to-face, mask-to-mask, and see the smiles in people’s eyes.
“That someone took the time to write these notes …” she said, then paused. “I have no idea who it was, but it was a nice little gift.”
Said Lowell: “When people are down and out and struggling, it’s always great to get these notes from random strangers. It doesn’t matter whether you know them or not. It keeps your spirits up.”
If you’d like to write a letter to be delivered at one of the senior centers, follow this link, or write to:
Love Letters to the Elderly
c/o Corey Lowell, Director of Senior Centers
Northshore Senior Center
10201 E. Riverside Drive
Bothell, WA 98011