VMI Letters Program Seeks to Spread Holiday Cheer

Luke Fegley ’24 and Freddy Junko ’24 participate in the holiday community outreach project by writing letters to seniors in local facilities. – Photo courtesy of Jim Gibson, VMI head wrestling coach.

Luke Fegley ’24 and Freddy Junko ’24 participate in the holiday community outreach project by writing letters to seniors in local facilities. – Photo courtesy of Jim Gibson, VMI head wrestling coach.

LEXINGTON, Va., Dec. 18, 2020—This holiday season, everyone could use a little extra cheer, but that’s especially true of residents of elder care facilities and nursing homes, who are facing little to no visitation from friends and family due to the surging coronavirus pandemic.

Thankfully, the Building BRIDGES Club at Virginia Military Institute has stepped up to share the holiday spirit with some of these senior citizens. Fourteen members of Building BRIDGES, a community service club, have joined with 21 VMI faculty and staff members, 8 members of the Omicron Delta Kappa (ODK) national leadership honor society, plus members of two NCAA sports teams—men’s soccer and wrestling—to write old-fashioned snail mail letters to residents of two local nursing homes, Kendal at Lexington and Heritage Hall.

The idea came from Katie McCommons ’21, cadet in charge of Building BRIDGES, which in years past has helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity and assisted with fundraisers for Project Horizon, among many other outreach efforts.

McCommons and Col. Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl and Lt. Col. Sara Whipple, faculty advisors to Building BRIDGES, were searching for ways to engage the local community in a socially distanced or virtual format when they heard that a local holiday event aimed at helping senior citizens, Be a Santa to a Senior, wasn’t going to happen this year due to the pandemic. Seeing an opportunity, Dimitrova-Grajzl, Whipple and McCommons offered Melissa Gladwell-Sayre, the coordinator of the Be a Santa to a Senior program, to have members of the VMI community write letters to those seniors instead.

VMI faculty, staff, and cadets signed up quickly—and now, approximately 74 seniors will receive letters.

Residents receive holiday letters from VMI - Photos courtesy of Heritage HallMcCommons explained that one of the goals of Building BRIDGES is to build relationships between members of the VMI community and local residents. Before the pandemic hit, visiting seniors living in nursing homes was high on the group’s priority list.

“I thought with the limitations imposed by COVID-19, the best alternative to an in-person visit would be to establish a holiday letter program,” wrote McCommons in an email. “We wish for these important members of our community to know that they are thought of and for them to feel cared for during these tough times.”

McCommons noted that her grandparents have felt isolated thanks to the pandemic, so she’s sure that others feel the same way.

“Everyone involved in this project will benefit from this relationship,” she stated. “We are all experiencing difficulties in one shape or form during this ongoing pandemic, but we are stronger together. I am very excited that we were able to get the VMI community involved with this project and have so many people interested in writing these letters.”

"We are so thankful that VMI is embracing our community and brightening the days of our residents during these trying times,” said Connor Staton, director of marketing and admissions at Heritage Hall.  “The letters they have received help make it easier for them to keep a smile on their face and a positive attitude when positivity has been hard to come by. We look forward to seeing how our relationship with VMI will grow in the future." [Photos of Victoria Kelly and Betty Lavendar (right) courtesy of Heritage Hall]

And even once the pandemic has passed, McCommons also hopes to keep the relationship going. “Even without COVID, I imagine the holidays may be a lonely time for some residents,” she commented. 

Mary Price 
Communications and Marketing
Virginia Military Institute

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