Ashley Kern, reading specialist at Field Stevenson, asked students to write letters to residents of nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.

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We’re all searching for statistics. Scouring the web for data and numbers that will tell us when, maybe, the pandemic will end.

There is no magic answer to that, though. And no snap-your-fingers solution either to ease people’s anxiety about the situation.

But advice – and hope – can come from surprising places. Like kids.

Ashley Kern, reading specialist at Field Stevenson School, said her mother told her about a teacher in Park Ridge who came up with an idea for her students to write letters of hope to nursing home residents. At that time, schools hadn’t been canceled yet although visitors were being banned from nursing homes and retirement centers.

Over the past few weeks, Kern’s thought about that project, and she decided to make it a voluntary assignment for her own students at Field. She gave the kids the task of writing a digital note to people in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers, people who might be looking for companionship or just a simple message of cheer.

Then Kern compiled the notes from third, fourth and fifth grade students into an online presentation. Around the same time, Kern said, she’d read a book with the students, a story about a boy who checks his mailbox every day waiting for a letter to arrive.

It’s the same, she explained to the kids, for some people in nursing homes. There are people who don’t have family nearby, and now that visitors are limited, communication from the outside world is something they might be missing.

The assignment was a way to teach empathy.

“Even if we don’t know someone, we can reach out and offer help and support,” said Kern.

Kern didn’t edit the letters the kids wrote. “I wanted it to be as authentic as possible,” she said, and she found the letters touching, charming, sometimes funny. And poignant too.

“The kids offer advice they’ve obviously heard from their parents,” said Kern. “To stay home. Drink chicken noodle soup if you’re not feeling well. It’s sweet.”

The slide show of letters has gone out to eight nursing homes and rehab centers, including Aperion and Altenheim in Forest Park. Most of the letters are addressed to “Dear Friendly Neighbor” though one says, “Dear Amazing Neighbor,” another “Dear New Friend,” and another, “Deal All Elderly.”

Here’s some of the good advice students offered on staying healthy.

Fifth grader Anthony’s advice was succinct: “Please stay home and take vitamins.”

Danny, also in fifth grade, had some good advice too. “Hello I am a student at field stevenson school,” wrote Danny. “You may be sad but this is a message to enlighten your day. With the help of everyone we will make it through this. Make sure you are washing your hands constantly so that you do not become sick. I hope you have an amazing day.”

Another student focused on social distancing, reminding readers to “only have a visitor if they are helping you cook food or driving you around.”

Beyond health advice, the kids had so many suggestions on staying busy and having fun while sheltered in place.

Fifth grader Madison offers these ideas to stay busy: “Some suggestions to occupy yourself at home is to play monopoly if you own it and help with family chores. You should also do something creative. Keep in touch with your relatives by, sending letters, emailing them, or doing zooms. I’ve also been playing on my nintendo switch.”

Angel’s suggestions to stay busy are “play a board game, do a puzzle, play Fortnite or COD Warzone.  My last one is spend time with your family help them with the dishes or help them clean the house.”

Cleaning came up more than twice. Fourth grader Lily said listed cleaning as her third favorite thing to do when bored, after drawing and singing.

Initially it seemed surprising how many kids mentioned missing school. It says, though, a lot about how supportive an environment their classrooms are for them, and what a source of emotional and social support it is for them. And how much they’d prefer to be learning in the classroom.

“Right now with all of this going on I think it is hard to do remote learning because I can’t keep up with all of the work. ,I am making it through and am trying my best,” said a 5th grader.

“I wish I can go back to school so I can play with [my friends],” said Jacob.

Fourth grader Negin offered a joke: “Where do pencils come from? Pennsylvania.”

And Sophie J. talked in detail about her pet parakeet. “Her name is Sunshine because she’s yellow. She can make a kissing noise if you touch her beak. She also chirps at her reflection in a mirror. She can say lots of things like “baby bird”, “I’m Sunshine”, and even says bless you when you sneeze. Do you have any birds at home or where you are right now?”

Other kids talked about their pets too, like Hollis, whose dog “is crazy and super funny.” Hollis also wrote: “I hope you are ok. I am stuck inside too. One thing I do to kill time is to draw.” He also suggested watching movies, especially those made by Studio Ghibli.

This Review reporter thinks that’s a solid suggestion. “My Neighbor Tortoro” and “Spirited Away” are two good films to start with.

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