Graduated senior forges friendships with senior (citizens)

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There are a fair share of challenges many might anticipate as they age. They slow down a bit, for example, and may even need some more assistance with day-to-day activities.

One thing impossible to anticipate? A pandemic. But unfortunately the coronavirus moved to the top of just about everyone’s list when the world quite literally shut down in March 2020.

The virus that causes COVID-19 shuttered the doors of many — if not all — senior living facilities and nursing homes, creating a sense of isolation no one could have prepared for. The Hebrew Home at Riverdale was no exception, but they did have a little help from the most unlikely of sources: Teenage girls who would have normally been taking classes on a campus just a few minutes away.

SAR High School was one of the first schools in New York — and perhaps the country — to close its doors and shift to fully remote learning after some of the state’s earliest reported cases affected the institution. And it stopped a would-be community outreach effort in its tracks.

Or, it might have, if Rebecca Altholz wasn’t standing at its head.

The recent SAR graduate committed at the beginning of her junior year to become more involved with charity and community outreach. That connected her with Ora Meier, a teacher who oversees outreach efforts at the school, who knew of just the perfect project Altholz could take on. 

The GlamourGals Foundation is a Manhattan-based organization focused on combatting elder isolation by pairing high school-based chapters of teenage girls with senior residential facilities in their area. The teen volunteers provide beauty services like manicures and makeovers for the women they’re paired with, all while forging intergenerational friendships along the way.

Yet, Altholz was a little hesitant to tackle such a project at first. But when she finally did, it not only made her realize it was the right decision — but it helped her realize how important her bond was with her senior relatives as well.

“I wasn’t as close with my grandparents as I wanted to be when I started GlamourGals,” Altholz said. “But I felt like there were times that I related more to these women than I did with my own grandparents. And it made me realize that I have to put in so much more effort and take advantage of the time I have with my grandparents.”

Unfortunately, partnering with a foundation whose mission isn’t exactly compatible with social distancing proved difficult during the coronavirus pandemic. But Altholz and Meier didn’t see it as a deterrent. Rather, it was an opportunity.

One of those opportunities was the foundation’s nationwide “My Dear Friend” campaign. The teens wrote and decorated cards, and the read them on video for the seniors. That was enough to get Altholz through the rest of her junior year. But when classes returned last fall to SAR, makeovers at places like the Hebrew Home remained out of the question. So what could they do?

Gift baskets and seasonal holiday parties over the Zoom online videoconferencing app. And even though it was difficult to work in aspects of GlamourGals’ original mission and activities, Altholz found a way.

“We were able to send them cards, send them Chapstick … or makeup-related things, so still kind of incorporating the GlamourGals model,” Altholz said. “We made it so that they open the gift baskets during the holiday party, and that it was another activity during the Zoom.”

Meier not only partnered with Altholz to bring GlamourGals to fruition at SAR, but also was her teacher for two classes over the past year. And through the combination of both, Meier was able to see her grow and devote herself to GlamourGals’ mission.

“She’s such a creative person,” Meier said. “She has a really strong foundation in terms of creativity, but she also now has leadership. And I can definitely say as her teacher, over the course of the year, it was an amazing thing to watch her increase her confidence and see her really shine.”

Altholz’s continued leadership and perseverance with SAR’s GlamourGals chapter made her eligible for the foundation’s Glammy Scholarship. Awarded to five graduating seniors each year, the scholarship provides each winner $1,000 to use toward college in thanks for their dedication to GlamourGals.

Altholz will use her scholarship at Tufts University in Massachusetts this fall. That’s great news for her, but it also means the leadership reins of SAR’s GlamourGals chapter must be handed over to someone new. But that is happening, and the program linking SAR to Hebrew Home will continue.

It’s something Altholz says she’ll keep an eye on — even from 200 miles away. And she looks forward to these new volunteers getting the chance to do what she couldn’t — return to in-person makeovers.

But it was never really about the makeovers for Altholz to begin with. Instead, it was about fostering strong friendships and seeing an organization near and dear to her heart develop and strengthen — perhaps to the point where it can now thrive, even without her.

“It was probably one of the most impactful experiences that I had in high school,” Altholz said. “I think it was a really great experience that any female high school student should definitely partake in, because it has such positive effects on you … and also just these elderly women: It makes their lives so much better.”

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