ST. PETERSBURG — An initiative led by USF St. Petersburg is connecting college students with senior citizens to reduce social isolation and develop new bonds during the global pandemic.
The program, called St. Pete Friends, offers an opportunity for community members and students to connect via phone, video chat, or even traditional letters to talk about their current experiences with social distancing, hear about another person’s life and share a much-needed laugh.
“As a public university campus anchored in St. Petersburg and our region, we always look for ways to serve people, and this is another example of doing so during a difficult time,” said Martin Tadlock, regional chancellor of USF St. Petersburg. “Plus, as an older citizen myself, there is value in building stronger connections across generations, as college students have a lot to learn from their older neighbors and our older neighbors have a lot to learn from today’s college students.”
Seniors in St. Petersburg living on their own, including USF alumni, can sign up to be a part of the program and receive companion calls from a USF St. Petersburg student through the Seniors In Service Tele-Pals Program. In the online application, please designate “Referred by USF St. Petersburg” in order to be paired with a USFSP student.
“There is a real need for connection right now, as many in our community isolate. We hope this can help people out and form new relationships during this tough time,” said Caryn Nesmith, who oversees special projects at USF St. Petersburg and is coordinating the new initiative.
Nesmith is collaborating with Seniors in Service and the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, who already have senior call programs. She is also working with the Neighborly Care Network (NCN) to further enhance a pen pal program for their community.
“A lot of folks feel powerless right now in their homes. They want to get out and help, but they don’t know what they can do. Building a connection in a time of isolation for our clients would be a very powerful thing to do,” said Susan McIntyre, development director for the Neighborly Care Network.
NCN assists around 2,000 seniors with adult daycare centers and programs like Meal on Wheels and a pen pal program. Students could participate in the pen pal program, writing letters that would be placed in grocery bags and given to seniors during their meals.
“Writing, typing, finger painting, whatever, just sending a message of hope and encouragement and cheer to a senior living alone during this scary time will give hope, and hope is a universal thing,” McIntyre added.
The St. Pete Friends initiative is open to any USF St. Petersburg student who wants to participate. They will be matched with a senior after filling out an application.
Before making the first call, students are provided with an instructional manual and conversation tips to help them better prepare for their first encounter and develop a rapport with their virtual match. Depending on the program, they may also undergo training by the collaborating organization.
St. Petersburg seniors and USF St. Petersburg students wanting to participate in St. Pete Friends can apply at www.usfsp.edu/career-center/st-pete-friends/.