Dylan Green

Titusville High School senior Dylan Green (left) poses with his adopter, Autumn Hanaway, after being adopted through the ‘Gift-a-Grad’ Facebook group.

For those who think that a small act of kindness is just that — small — you might want to reconsider. Just ask Carole Brink, of Cooperstown, and her daughter, Amber McKain, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. What started as a “small act of kindness” in Elizabethtown has metamorphosed into a regional outburst of support for seniors in Crawford, Venango and the surrounding counties.

On April 13, a Facebook group, based out of McKain’s hometown of Elizabethtown, named “Bless-a-senior-2020” was created to honor their area seniors. In the group, parents would post a picture of their senior with a short bio that would include academic, athletic and recreational activities. Someone in the community would then “adopt” one of the posted seniors by responding to the individual posts. The adopter then communicated with the parents to purchase gifts based on the interests and futures of the seniors before setting up a date and time to surprise the seniors. The concept was simple, but the impact was profound.

Shortly after the creation of the group, McKain and her husband adopted three local seniors, while her sister-in-law adopted “several as well.” They were a few of the 16,818 members of the “Bless-a-senior-2020” Facebook page. Even though the outreach was already incredible, McKain saw the potential of taking it even further: across the country back to her roots of Northwest Pennsylvania.

She contacted her mother, Brink — who was a graduate of Titusville High School, Class of 1987, and currently lives in Cooperstown — to talk about starting a similar group. After Brink contacted the administrator of the origin group in Kentucky, the Crawford and Venango County based group “Gift-a-Grad” was created on April 15. Like in Kentucky, the bonding between members of the community and area seniors spread like wildfire.

“I have been doing fundraising for about three years now,” Brink said. “So when I learned of this idea, I jumped at the chance. I truly believe life is about reaching out to others during difficult times. And, I have learned when I do these kinds of things that the community is full of giving people who are always eager to help. I am grateful to live in such a close-knit community with such an amazing support system. Without them, things like this wouldn’t be possible.”

One of the amazing trends from the members of the community who adopted seniors is that some of them didn’t even personally know the seniors they were adopting.

Six of those seniors were adopted by Whitney Howard, of Linesville, who was invited to the group by a friend. Howard and her husband are currently in the Army National Guard, and they used that connection when deciding to adopt three seniors entering the military. The remaining three, including Xavian Sider from Titusville, had a musical background, which was another focal point  stemming from Howard’s college degree in music.

Howard got in contact with Sider’s mother, Jenn, to touch base on what items would be good to include in the gift. Later, Howard met up with Xavian and Jenn to present a gift bag that included some of Xavian’s favorite cheese, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, a military shirt and some gift cards.

“It was such a wonderful time meeting Xavian and his mother, Jenn,” Howard said. “It blessed my heart that I was able to give back and make six seniors’ days just a little bit brighter. I wish I could have adopted every senior in that group.”

Two Centerville residents that otherwise would have not known each other connected because of the this Facebook group. Krystal Dittman adopted Titusville senior Ian Eldred because she “really wanted to do something for the seniors” because “they’ve missed out on so much.”

Eldred met Dittman for first time and received a new fishing reel, a pair of polarized sunglasses, a filled tackle box and a 2020 senior mug. Dittman has  “loved” how the community has come together for the seniors. 

“I love our small community,” Dittman said. “I knew the ‘Gift-a-Grad’ would be successful because our community always comes together when we need it.”

Eldred, who plans on joining the U.S. Navy in July, said that he was “honored” to be adopted, but admitted it was an “odd feeling” because he is “still adjusting” to how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the end of his high school career. 

“(Some) of the biggest issues I have is having to leave all of my friends and giving up all of the memories I know we would have made in school,” Eldred said. “I’m missing out on tennis, my swimming banquet and definitely Mrs. Smith’s class.”

Oil City resident Crystal Walter was another person who didn’t know the two seniors that she adopted prior to her involvement in the Facebook group. Walter adopted Maplewood senior Cameron Ward and Titusville senior Wyatt Caryl. For Walter, it “wasn’t about knowing” the seniors she was impacting.

“It was about showing them that support comes from everywhere, and (the community) didn’t forget about them,” Walter said.

Caryl was given a four-man tent, storm proof matches, a waterproof camping box and gift cards, while Ward received a car-cleaning kit, shop towels, a corn hole set and gift cards.

“It’s pretty sweet to know that there are kind people like (Walter) out in the world that care for other people when they don’t even know them,” said Ward, who plans on entering the work force.

Fellow Maplewood senior Daphne Atkins received more than just tangible gifts after she was adopted by Conneaut Lake resident Rebecca Brown. The two actually became friends.

Brown said that she chose Atkins after reading the biographies of the seniors because she “related to her.” Atkins is planning on attending Wooster College in Ohio for biology in order to become a biologist while Brown has that passion for science after becoming an engineer. The two also shared a love for sports.

Along with the new friendship, Atkins received some of her favorite snacks, cups and reusable ice cubes, a custom senior photo collage, coloring books, a custom T-shirt and school supplies when they met for the first time in person.

“The meeting went great,” Atkins said. “We actually sat (down) and got to know each other for a few hours. We discovered that she knows a lot of people that I know and am related to, and we created a great friendship out of it.”

Another potential friendship was put into motion between Titusville senior Dylan Green and the son of his adopter, Autumn Hanaway. Green, who will be attending Penn State Behrend for computer hardware engineering, said that Hanaway’s son will also be going to Penn State Behrend in the fall and that he could reach out to make an acquaintance prior to being on campus. 

Green — who received a Penn State Behrend mug and T-shirt, IKEA moving bags and a gift card — called the experience “a little awkward, but overall fun.”

“(This group) is pretty special,” Green said. “I was excited to be able to experience a complete stranger willing to help me prepare for college.”

The adopting of the seniors closed through the group on May 15, but pictures are still being posted of seniors meeting their adopters and receiving their gifts.

In one short month, 317 seniors were adopted, and they weren’t just from the public schools of Crawford and Venango counties. Seniors that were homeschooled, in cyber school and in surrounding counties were also adopted. Both McKain and Brink were blown away from the support of the community.

“My family has always held events to bless people in our communities, that is, until the virus hit,” McKain said. “We love seeing smiles on faces and try to spread kindness to everyone we can. Reading the stories from the kids in the group (on Facebook) put a lump in my throat … We wanted to do something special for them, just to see (or even just to know) that what we did ended up as a smile. We had no idea that it would turn into being able to bless over 300 seniors.”

“Our hearts are full,” Brink added. “We are very proud of everyone who helped our dream become a reality. We wish the Class of 2020 the best in the future and a lifetime of happiness.”

 

Borland can be reached at sports@titusvilleherald.com.

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