It may have started with some good-natured parental pressure—Drew Barry ’20 recalls his mom leaning on him to do “a ton of community service” his freshman year. But one special session of TGIF OPS (Open Painting Studios) with local senior citizens, and Barry and his friend Finn Harrington ’20 were hooked. The open art studio event at Nobles was organized by Caroline Collins-Pisano ’18, who created the Golden Dawgs program with Community Service Coordinator Linda Hurley to connect students with local senior citizens. In 2018, Collins-Pisano received a scholarship from MIT’s Opportunities for Multigenerational Engagement, Growth and Action (OMEGA) for developing the program.

Caroline Collins-Pisano at TGIF OPS
Caroline Collins-Pisano ’18, student founder of the Golden Dawgs, at TGIF OPS with a friend, Edie.

Over the years, Golden Dawgs volunteers have forged lasting relationships with folks from the Dedham Retired Men’s Club, Hebrew Senior Life, Dedham Housing Authority at O’Neil Drive, and the Dedham Council on Aging. In addition to TGIF OPS, elders have attended Nobles concerts and theatre performances, like Les Misérables this past winter (photo at top). Through fundraisers, students have also supported efforts like helping to acquire electronic pets for lonely seniors, and giving them iPods after learning of a study linking music to restoring memory.

At his first Golden Dawgs event, Barry remembered, “I had a conversation with a senior that was so impactful and genuine. They were all super nice—you could tell they wanted to be there with us.” Harrington agreed, “You felt like you really got to know them. It was obvious it meant a lot to them, and we really enjoyed the conversations. They’re always so curious about us, asking what we’re doing in school and talking about their grandkids.”

Barry said, “They love hearing about our high school experience, remembering theirs, then sharing their experiences and giving us advice on what to do and what to avoid.” Harrington added, “It’s a wildly different perspective; you always take something away from it.”

When Collins-Pisano graduated, Barry and Harrington took the wheel. Their brotherhood with each other and dedication to the Golden Dawgs, along with their humorous, heartfelt assembly announcements, rallied student volunteers. Then Covid-19 struck.

The pandemic’s statistics for older people, especially those in group homes, and those who are economically disadvantaged, are grim. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “8 out of 10 deaths reported in the U.S. have been in adults 65 years old and older.” While the health effects of social isolation and loneliness have long been concerns for this population, the disease has exponentially compounded that danger. An April 13 article by Paula Span in the New York Times, “Just What Older People Didn’t Need, More Isolation,” stated, “About a quarter of people over 65 living independently in their communities are considered socially isolated, and 43 percent of those over 60 report feeling lonely — and that was before public health officials instructed older people, and everyone else, to stay home.”

David Grabowski, professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School who specializes in the economics of aging with a focus on long-term and post-acute care, tweeted on April 12: “Nursing home residents are experiencing…
1) Death due to COVID19
2) Death due to social isolation, inattention to other needs, etc.
…Prediction: When it is all said and done, 2 will outnumber 1”

Finn Harrington and Drew Barry ’20 rally volunteers for a Golden Dawgs event
Finn Harrington and Drew Barry ’20 rally volunteers for a Golden Dawgs event during an assembly announcement

Barry said, “It’s honestly devastating, because we had so many events scheduled for the spring, after running this club for two years. But much more so than the events, we’re worried about all these people we’ve worked with for two years and just making sure that they’re top priority and being safe. We understand that while we can’t be there to interact with them, there are still things we can do without physically being with them.”

The club’s first course of action was setting up an infrastructure for Nobles student volunteer drivers to deliver groceries to elders; they set up an online ordering system and began creating a website. But after consulting Community Service Coordinators Linda Hurley and Holly Bonomo and current health guidelines, they agreed that it might not be the safest way to help. For now, they’ve put the system aside in case it becomes feasible for the future—in the meantime, they’re organizing another way to reach out.

Barry and Harrington are establishing a pen pal and calling system to connect student volunteers with seniors. “It’s a lonely time, especially for senior citizens who for their own health have to stay inside, so we’ve been working to make them feel better,” Harrington said. Barry added, “We’re hoping for 30 minutes to an hour every week, when a student and Golden Dawg can interact.”

Today, Friday, May 1, would have been GrandGuest Day, when grandparents and special friends descend on campus for a day in the life of their Nobles student. Harrington and Barry said, “We were trying to finally set up this program that we’ve been gunning for for years now, where we invite students who don’t have grandparents coming for GrandGuest Day to pair up with a Golden Dawg.” Still, they remain optimistic for next spring, and already have next year’s leaders, Alex Abdelal and Tommy Kantrowitz, both ’21, on board.

Harrington said, “GrandGuest Day is our biggest aspiration, because we’re always asking [the seniors], ‘What other events do you want to see us doing, or want us inviting you to?’ and they say, ‘We want to see your classes.’ We used to visit their communities, but the big feedback we got was they loved coming and seeing Nobles.”

While the Golden Dawgs miss their campus visits and time with students, those Nobles volunteers who can now empathize with being socially isolated have realized how much they also have to gain. After all, stories of resilience, a lifetime of perspective and meaningful human connection are pretty solid rewards for penning a letter or picking up the phone.

If you’re a Nobles student who’d like to help bring some cheer to a Golden Dawg or volunteer for another #MoreGoodNews initiative, you can sign up here. For any questions about the Golden Dawgs, contact student leaders Drew Barry ’20, Finn Harrington ’20, Tommy Kantrowitz ’21 or Alex Abdelal ’21.

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