Metro Atlanta teens helping seniors isolated by COVID-19

Avery Pursell shows one of the large-print crossword puzzle books that are in the gift bags that she and her colleagues in her chapter of the National Charity League prepared for the residents of Mount Vernon Towers, a senior living facility in Sandy Springs. Her uncle Matthew Breda helps with the delivery. BO EMERSON/BEMERSON@AJC.COM

High school students gather crossword puzzle books and treats to keep Mount Vernon seniors amused.

Like those in many senior facilities, the 300 residents of the Mount Vernon Towers Condominiums in Sandy Springs are restricted by circumstances.

They are all taking meals in their rooms, and the group dining facilities are closed down, according to Rita Malone, assistant executive director. “All the activities are canceled, our card games and church services are canceled.”

The actions are all intended to protect this group, among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, which has swept through senior facilities in Georgia, killing hundreds. So far, there has been one case at Mount Vernon.

The residents are safer this way, but their days are more tedious. High school student Avery Pursell and more than a dozen of her friends decided to help in a small way.

They assembled gift bags for the residents designed to bring amusement, entertainment and a smile.

Each hand-decorated "bag of hope" included treats, a cheery letter, a book of large-print crossword puzzles, another find-a-word book and a wristband from the artist Jason Kofke with his classic promise: "Everything Will Be OK."

“He let us use the artwork and didn’t charge us,” said Avery, 17, a junior at Wesleyan School in Peachtree Corners.

Avery Pursell (center) delivers gifts bags to Rita Malone (right), assistant executive director at Mount Vernon Towers Condominiums, with assistance from staffer Taylor Williams (left.) Pursell and her colleagues collected 300 books of large-print crossword puzzles and other amusements to distribute to the residents at the senior living center. BO EMERSON/BEMERSON@AJC.COM

Avery and her friends assembled the bags with masks and gloves on, and her mother Melanie Pursell used Lysol to help keep the preparation area spotless.

On a sunny and breezy Friday afternoon, Avery, her mother and her uncle, Matthew Breda, all wearing masks and gloves, drove the bags from the Pursell house in Peachtree Corners to Sandy Springs. The gift bags filled the bed of Breda’s Ford truck, with more inside the cars driven by the Pursells.

Meeting them at the circular drive in front of the facility, Malone, with help from her daughter, staffer Taylor Williams, pushed rolling luggage carts to carry the bags inside. They had to make three or four trips.

“This is going to be a tremendous help,” said Malone, who was delighted to offer her residents something to amuse them.

It had been a shut-down spring. The residents couldn’t attend Easter services or even an Easter egg hunt, but Williams acquired 1,400 plastic eggs so that she could leave several outside of every resident’s door, with treats inside.

One resident left the facility then tested positive for COVID-19, before passing away. The facility quarantined her floor for 14 days but executive director Chris Peterson and his staff were already using strong measures to keep the chances of transmission down.

To avoid unnecessary trips to the store, the staff does food shopping for the residents, and wipes down and rebags the groceries in food-quality bags.

Kofke said he was pleased to see his artwork used to cheer up seniors. “Melanie reached out to me to see if it was OK, and it was beyond OK. I told her [to] let me change the design a little bit to match the format.”

Kofke's slogan, in its distinctive lettering, has been seen on signs around the United States, as well as in China, Japan and Russia. It has taken on new meaning during the COVID-19 crisis.

Preparing the gift bags was a project of Avery’s chapter of the National Charity League. The members of her “class” at the league were able to talk Avery’s uncle and grandfather, of Breda Pest Management, into covering the cost of the books and the wristbands.

(Avery is still finishing her junior year with online classes, which are not particularly easy, but says “it’s gone pretty well.”)

Melanie Pursell said, “We’re hoping someone else sees this and wants to do it wherever they are.”

Avery’s group plans to make more gift bags for at least two more senior facilities, the Montclair Personal Care Home in Decatur and Sunrise of Johns Creek. “They do hope to continue this, and it sounds like they’re really just getting started,” said Avery’s mom. “It’s been fun. I’m proud of Avery [for] leading this.”

Sylvia Warden, a resident at Mount Vernon Towers Condominiums is seen with a gift bag courtesy of a chapter of the National Charity League. CONTRIBUTED: MOUNT VERNON TOWERS

The seniors at Mount Vernon Towers later expressed gratitude for the gifts, said Williams, relaying a quote from resident Sue Papciak: “What a wonderful and thoughtful bag of hope awaited us residents this morning! The nicest part was a lovely letter written by a thoughtful teen. The thoughts expressed give us, the older generation, hope the future will be in good hands.”

People Helping People

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