By Michael Lewis
It's amazing how great ideas and projects can begin with a simple act of kindness.
What started as regular visits to Aaron Lefkowitz's grandmother in a memory care unit has become a nationwide organization and project to help brighten the lives of senior citizens in assisted living facilities that spans generations.
During the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the Real Jersey goalkeeper, who performs in EDP Soccer, decided to create ConversationsToRemember.org, which has given a boost to many seniors. Aaron is the student president of the not-for-profit organization.
In the past year and a half, hundreds of volunteers, many of high school and college age, have spent at least one hour each week talking to senior citizens via the Internet to make their lives richer and to let them know that someone out there cares.
ConversationsToRemember.org not only serves New Jersey but has expanded to 45 states.
"The setup has ultimately proven to not just work but flourish as a volunteer opportunity," Aaron said.
Indeed, it has.
It has been a learning experience and a half for everyone, including Aaron, who was 16 when ConversationsToRemember.org was launched in April 2020.
Before the pandemic shut down much of the USA, the Montville, N.J. resident visited his grandmother Ruth on his father's side at her facility.
"When he would go there, other residents loved talking to him," said Aaron's mother, Eve, who is the organization’s executive director. "He would be like a social butterfly going from one to the another, chatting with them because it really made their day. There really weren't a lot of teenagers that came to visit. ... He wanted to kind of spread the wealth a little bit. He went ahead and started volunteering every week at a different facility in their memory care unit."
Not only did Aaron talk to seniors, but he also played bingo and word games.
Then COVID-19 struck, shutting down visits to all health facilities.
"I didn't want to stop the visits," Aaron said. "I personally enjoyed them. I also was very aware of how impactful it was for the residents, the joy that they got from hanging out with me and the joy I have with them."
So, Aaron approached the facility he was working with and asked about transitioning to virtual setting. He received a positive reply. Aaron recruited a friend to help him.
"It was fantastic. We were having a lot of fun," Aaron said. "She was having a lot of fun. So, I recruited another friend."
Aaron still talks to a pair of senior women virtually on a regular basis. "He feels like they're his family that they consider him family," Eve said. "It's wonderful."
He discovered other residents were interested in virtual calls.
"I just realized this is such an easy way to volunteer, and more and more volunteer experiences are restricted by geographic boundaries and difficulties of scheduling and transport," he said. "This can get around that in a lot of ways. ... Not only is this easier for volunteers because if you want to volunteer for an hour, you don't actually need to do a lot."
Such as eliminating the commute.
"You can genuinely do it from the comfort of your bed, from your desk in your room," Aaron said.
More students came on board as the project expanded to more facilities.
"The experience itself is also a lot more beneficial for the volunteers as well, being that they're getting exposure, not just to seniors who can offer wisdom and experiences that can help the volunteers grow,” Aaron said. “They're getting exposure to how life in America is different for someone living in California vs. Florida vs. Montana. They have different stories to share. I might be talking about that I'm from New Jersey. I was driving to school and some deer were crossing the road, but I might have a friend on the call telling me how they had that same story except it was crazy because there were cows crossing the road. That's a small thing but it's experiences like that. Maybe some people have never seen the ocean before, but some people live on the ocean."
Aaron admitted he did not think this project would made such a huge impact.
"I most certainly did not expect it to take off in this extreme magnitude," he said, adding that he felt "like no way this could happen."
"I thought that I'd have some friends that would do it and friends of friends but every day we get people signing up for the program, submitting interest forms from all over," he said. "Now, it's total strangers. It's absurd to me even still, when we get all of these people signing up, I'm like, wow! It's very heartening that there are these many people that are going out of their way to do this volunteer work and to help others."
Aaron, who has been involved in countless calls with seniors, remembered some "impactful words" with a woman named Bea.
"At the end of our calls, she sometimes says she loves us," he said. "The first time she said that it was just like wow, that's the impact that we have on her like that. The whole goal of the program is forming these relationships and these bonds between the students and the residents. I was aware that we had a great bond, but just putting those words to those feelings just reasserts how beneficial and ... how much how meaningful it is for her. That has to be one of the most rewarding parts of this volunteer work."
Needless to say, Eve is proud of her son and what he has accomplished. It has fit in with his personality, she said.
"It doesn't surprise me, because to know Aaron is know that he doesn't do anything halfway," she said. "He is the kid that cares so much. He strives to be the best in every way he can. He's very driven. He's always been such a hard worker in school, even last year when, when they were remote.
"So, when he came up with this, knowing who he is, it wasn't as big a shock. He's always been so caring is the kind of kid that he'll stay up late helping his friends with, with their studies, and then doing his homework after he's finished helping them. Helping others is in his nature. He's got a really huge heart. I'm proud of him beyond words."
You have to remember that Aaron has a "day job" — as a senior at Montclair Kimberley Academy in Montclair, N.J., where he is a regular member of the High Honor Roll (3.87 grade-point average and 1570 on SATs). He is also goalkeeper of the boys soccer team and for Real Jersey in EDP Soccer.
Aaron's secret? It's all about being focused and organized.
"It's definitely a lot to handle," he said. "I am a very firm believer if you care to make time, you can make time. That's what I do. Sometimes that means I have to do homework in the car on the drive to soccer. Sometimes that means staying up a little later at night, not hanging out with my friends. It's really about setting the priorities.
"It's about being realistic about here's what I have coming up. This is this is what my week looks like. Thursday is going to be a crazy day. It's also going back to the parents and support, having the emotional outlets because it gets stressful. It gets hard to handle sometimes. So, it's important to have that support network that I can rely on."
His support network has included Eve, his father Robert and older sister, Ilana.
Aaron’s experience has set up his career path. After talking to his grandmother and creating Conversations To Remember, he wants to research the brain and try to cure Alzheimer’s.
"This is another way for me to attack this sort of problem." he said. "Right now as a 17-year-old boy, I can't go into a lab and do research. I'm just not there yet. I think there are the medical and social struggles. Both have an immense impact on the seniors and they both need their own attention. A big part of what I'm doing right now is recognizing what I want to do and finding an alternate route to make an impact right now."
His top schools include Johns Hopkins University, Brown University and MIT. "My goal is ultimately I want to go to the best academic college I can and if I can play soccer there that's the cherry on top," Aaron said.
Conversations to Remember will hold its first Talk-a-thon from Dec. 1-15, as participants will raise awareness and funds by calling seniors, participating in social media fundraising and collecting donations. Those donations will go to purchase tablets, so seniors will be able to partake in those virtual visits by volunteers.
Eve said that the Talk-a-thon was implemented to call senior citizens during the holiday season and "check in on them to make them make sure they know that somebody out there cares about them because isolation and loneliness is really difficult thing."
Added Aaron: "It's kind of a twist on your classic Walk-a-thon. We're keeping with the theme of helping seniors. We want people to be inspired to even just reach out to the senior citizens in their lives. Even if that means you call your grandpa a couple of times a week. And we've now inspired you to have that conversation to show your grandpa that you care. It's sometimes hard to recognize how important that conversation is. Just calling and saying, 'Hey, I care about you.' It's something so simple that we overlook. It's something you can do in your daily life, and it doesn't take that much work."
Conversations to Remember can be reached and followed several ways.
To visit its website, go to ConversationsToRemember.org or c2r.chat.
It also can be reached on Instagram - @conversations.to.remember or on Facebook or LinkedIn.