Senior Sunshine Club brightens lives of students and retirees in Temecula

Members of Linfield Christian School’s Senior Sunshine Club meet their Atria Park Sunshine Buddies in person for the first time at the Temecula school for an ice cream social July 29. Valley News/Courtesy photo

When Linfield Christian School junior Cody Emig talked to his grandmother in Kansas City during the COVID-19 lockdowns, he learned the isolation from her friends and social activities made her feel lonely and bored. When the Temecula school held its annual Club Rush in the fall of 2020, Emig virtually promoted his idea for a new club and it was approved.

The Senior Sunshine Club pairs Linfield students with residents at Atria Park of Vintage Hills retirement community in Temecula. Emig, who has been president of the club since it began, said he thought it would be great to write letters and take them to the senior living center, which has 143 residents when at full capacity. He said Audrey Gonzales joined him as the club’s vice president soon after it was formed.

“Once we had more members, the Engaged Life Director and I assigned student ‘buddies’ to the Atria residents that were interested in writing letters back and forth,” Emig, 17, said. Each pen pal is called a Sunshine Buddy. Anywhere from 16 to 20-plus students are involved with the club depending on the time of year and how many residents are participating, he said. Currently about 15 residents are regular letter writers and there are three Linfield club members waiting to be assigned a buddy.

Atria’s Engaged Life Director Jael Sambrano is working on getting more residents involved. Participation is voluntary but she said she didn’t have trouble finding residents who wanted to become a Sunshine Buddy.

“Most of our residents in the community are very vocal about their lives,” Sambrano said.

That enthusiasm is what Emig said keeps him and the other students engaged in the program. “It’s fun to hear their life stories and talk about that. I was surprised at how fun their stories are, such as where they served in the military, or where they taught school and what grade; what countries or states they have lived in and what their favorite places are.”

He said Jack, his Sunshine Buddy since April, served in the U.S. Navy and worked for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, lived with his wife in Italy for six years and worked in Germany, Greece, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“We do hear some great stories about their childhood, careers, military stories, family, where they grew up, if they went to college and where, how many grandkids they have, and what their memories are of everything,” Emig said.

In this day and age where so much technology is available to young people, Emig said he thought it might be hard to recruit students to communicate the old-fashioned way with pen and paper but said there was a lot of interest from the beginning.

“A lot of students liked the idea,” he said. “I think most of the students have grandparents and are used to talking to them and know what interests them. It is actually easier than I thought it would be because their backgrounds and stories are truly interesting. They have so much wisdom and it’s fun getting to know them.”

He said, in the letters, “We tell our buddies about our family, trips we have taken, what pets we have, what our hobbies are, sports we play in, favorite foods, our favorite subject in school, how old we are and what grade we are in, etc. Also, what we have planned for upcoming holidays, school breaks, family traditions, our favorite movies, fun things we have done that they would be interested in, and lots more. Most of the Linfield Buddies sent their Atria Buddy pictures. It helped them get to know us and made the connection more personalized. We want them to know we care about them.”

Emig, who has been a Linfield Christian student since fifth grade, said during the time he has gotten to know more about the Atria residents, he was surprised to learn that many of them regularly work out. “Also, how much wisdom and history they have; my buddy has 19 great-grandchildren,” he said.

Sambrano said Atria residents meet once or twice a month in the arts and crafts room to compose letters. “I also stop at the residents’ rooms and provide them cards and pens to write to their Sunshine Buddies,” she said. “I definitely encourage our residents to join the club. It helps them become more social and there are also residents that don’t have children or family to visit. The students put smiles on their faces and seeing their connection build between one another is amazing.”

She enjoys seeing a resident smile when hearing what the students have been up to in school. She said many residents ask the students about what they would like to be when they grow up and/or what their college plans are.

Linfield students write letters to their Sunshine Buddy about once a month as well. Students who haven’t been assigned a buddy yet write a general letter to a resident. Emig said they typically receive return letters within two or three weeks and then start the process over. Students have at least a couple of weeks to write their buddy back after they receive their letter.

“Either Audrey or I pick up the letters from Atria and then hand them out to the Linfield students at school,” he said. “We keep track of who is writing letters and receiving letters so we can exchange them all at the same time. When we collect the student letters, one of us drops them off at Atria and they put them in the Sunshine Letter box they keep at their front desk and hand them out to the residents. One of us then picks up the letters when the residents have written them.”

An unexpected but very welcome turn happened this summer when the Sunshine Buddies were able to meet each other face-to-face for the first time. They started exchanging letters in October 2020 and had their first in-person meeting at Linfield Christian July 29. Since then, the two groups have met for additional pizza parties and ice cream socials at Atria. They are in the process of scheduling the next get-together later this month.

“What motivates me is that I believe we are making a difference in their lives and hopefully keeping their spirits up during what must have been a rough year and a half for them,” Emig said. “Now that we are able to meet them in person, it is even more fun. Atria has treated us to pizza and ice cream and drinks, and Linfield parents and students have treated Atria to ice cream and drinks.”

Any individuals or businesses that would like to donate items or gift cards to help with in-person visits are encouraged to contact the school’s club adviser, Marla Renno at mrenno@linfield.com.

“Being a part of this club has been more rewarding that I realized,” Emig said. “The Atria buddies have put a lot of smiles on our faces too, and it has been an amazing experience getting to know them and the Atria staff.”

Sambrano said, “The Senior Sunshine Club has made a difference in our community.”

Emig is hoping the club can branch out to include more retirement or assisted living facilities in the area. For more information, contact club adviser Marla Renno at mrenno@linfield.com.

Diane A. Rhodes