Teens make sure older residents get gifts

SALEM – Kids seem to get all the gifts at Christmas, but one Glenvar High School student wanted to make sure older people in her community weren’t forgotten.

“I thought what I would want if I was older,” explained 15-year-old Laura Leonard. “I wanted to volunteer here at the Joseph C. Thomas Center, and it was real sad that some people didn’t have families that come to visit or bring them Christmas presents. I made sure all of them did.”

Glenvar High School student Laura Leonard, right, and friends collected and personally delivered gifts to each of the 92 residents at Joseph C. Thomas Center at Richfield Retirement Community on Dec. 21. With Laura are, from left, Megan Jacobs, Jack Leonard, Hunter Wilson, Tyler Smith, Jessy Wilson and residents Ester Magruder and Helen Thornton. Photo by Meg Hibbert

Her idea wasn’t part of a school club project. It was just something the Glenvar sophomore wanted to do.

So she spread the word to her friends at GHS. And then Principal Joe Hafey gave her permission to put out boxes in the school to collect small gifts and donations. Even a few Glenvar Middle School students, including seventh grader Jack Leonard, who is Laura’s brother, got involved, as well as school staff.

“One week, the box in the school office was overflowing,” Laura said. “So many people helped. Mr. Hafey really helped this along. He went to a faculty meeting and told all of our teachers and sent out an email, without me knowing.”

Laura Leonard gets a hug from Clarence Richardson after giving him a present. Photo by Meg Hibbert

On Friday before Christmas, Laura and six of her friends personally delivered presents to each of the 92 residents at JCT. Every one of the 76 women got a shiny gift bag filled with gloves, scarves and lotion and shampoo, toothpaste, a new toothbrush, deodorant and other small items.

Each of the 16 men got similar items, as well as a white T-shirt, socks.

The students also donated teddy bears and blankets for those who would like them, and different clubs and teachers at Glenvar created handmade Christmas cards for each residents.

And then the students visiting on Dec. 21 made and baked Christmas sugar cookies with residents such as Louise Brewer and Mary Smith.

Glenvar students Adam Kelley and Marina Hafey, whose uncle is Principal Hafey, played Christmas carols on the grand piano for the residents and staff, and led a sing-along.

The teens also gave hugs, and got them back in return. Lillie Bowles got two hugs at once, from Jack Leonard and Tyler Smith.

“My girlfriend, Laura, got me into this. I thought it would be really nice to help out,” said Tyler, pushing a hotel-type luggage rack piled with gift bags for residents “I came with the football team in the fall, and I like coming here,” he said. “I thought what it would be like if my grandparents lived here.”

Student Jessy Wilson said she volunteered after Laura made an announcement at school, “and I went and asked if I could help in some way.”

“They’re an awful mannerly bunch of kids,” said resident Helen Thornton.

“This is wonderful, so nice,” said Esther Magruder, getting hugs from a couple of students on each side of her as they all posed for a group picture in the the JCT Center lobby.

“Oh, they’re bringing me things I need,” said resident Nell Holland.

Laura’s mom, Kim, came by to watch her daughter and her friends give out gifts. “She’s got the biggest heart,” Leonard said. “She thought the whole thing out and went to her school. The school got behind her,” said her mom, with tears streaming down her face.

Leonard added that Laura used to go to Maine with her to help out with Leonard’s father, Richard Stebbins, who died relatively young in his 60s of dementia. “She knew how hard it was.”

“Laura wants to do this every single year and keep it going,” she added. Laura’s dad, Alan, had worked in food services at Richfield when he was a Glenvar High School. He graduated from Salem High School in 1984.

“The Glenvar students are just so eager to give back to the community,” said Life Enrichment Coordinator Beverly Adams. “Laura wants to come to volunteer with us. We already have one student, London Hughes, who calls Bingo for us every Tuesday night.”

And when the students left JCT on Friday, they left smiles behind.