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Making a difference at a very local level

Tyler Brezynskie has expanded his efforts beyond the EDSS leadership class. [Leah Gerber]

Tyler Brezynskie is a Grade 12 student at Elmira District Secondary School. He plays AAA hockey, and intends to go to the University of Guelph to study creative writing. He already plays for the Guelph Jr. Gryphons U-18 AAA team. His goal is to become an author, he says.

Last year, for his leadership class, Brezynskie decided to write letters to residents at Barnswallow Place long-term care home in Elmira.

While normally the leadership class involves students running high-energy, in-person events like local fundraisers that involve the whole school, or class-to-class challenges, during the pandemic everything was moved online and finding interesting projects could pose a challenge, Brezynskie said.

“It was hard at first, but I saw videos online of how impacted people in the homes were, and I kind of knew right away.

“We were encouraged to do something in the community that we thought would benefit others. And I saw everyone was struggling with not being able to see anyone, especially people in the old age home, I saw videos online of visitors having to go up to windows and stuff. Just to see them, that kind of touched me so I decided I’d write letters,” he said.

Staff at Barnswallow Place had been wanting to find a way to get in contact with students at the high school and bridge the gap between the old and the young.

During the pandemic, “we started reaching out to the Elmira High School, to see if we could get some of the students interested in meeting with our residents and do some programming with them,” Rukhsana Popat, a social worker at Barnswallow Place and a leader in the intergenerational program, told The Observer previously.

“So yeah, it’s been in the works for quite a while but I would have to give credit to Tyler that he kind of broke the ice for us. And the minute he reached out to the home, we just grabbed it and ran with it,” she said.

Brezynskie wrote about 10 letters addressed to no one resident in particular, and staff at Barnswallow Place passed them out. He received about six or seven replies.

The residents had questions for him and were excited to have someone to talk to, he said.

“I love to write, and what I want to go to school for is creative writing. And so I figured I’d use my writing skills and my enjoyment of it and put it to good use,” said Brezynskie.

Earlier this month, a few more students from the school’s leadership class passed out gift baskets to the residents for which the class had fundraised. Barnswallow Place staff say the event was the launch of an intergenerational program between the high school students and the residents, beginning with a pen pal program and continuing with more in-person events like breakfast, and group discussions about current events, as the pandemic allows.

Since writing those initial letters, Brezynskie joined the family council at Barnswallow Place. He says the family council is a group of volunteers who fundraise, try to create as many opportunities as possible for the residents to do with their families, and to help new residents transition smoothly into the home

Brezynskie will graduate this year, but he hopes the intergenerational program and partnership between Barnswallow Place and Elmira’s high school students will continue and grow stronger.

“My hope is that it can last for years and years and years at the high school, and that there’s always a steady flow of students that want to get in, and want to get involved and do something in the community, whether it is like a pen pal thing like I did, or even if it’s just going in and being a friend with someone in the home. I think it could become some sort of a club.”

He encourages the wider community to get active, too.

“Get involved, don’t be afraid to get yourself out there and lend a helping hand. Extend your reach.”

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