HOMETOWN HERO: Pandemic can't stop lessons in empathy

Courtesy photo. Connor Smith-Chang, 5, of Windham, drops off homemade cards for residents at Warde Health Center in Windham.

WINDHAM — At 5 years old, Connor Smith-Chang of Windham has learned that good intentions, a piece of construction paper and colorful markers go a long way in making others smile.

Through Kids in Service, a Windham organization intended to provide youngsters a glimpse of volunteerism, his most recent creations have gone to elders in his hometown.

Founder Jessica Weller praised Connor’s efforts and about 35 others, ranging from elementary to high school, who have pivoted during the coronavirus pandemic to continue the organization’s mission.

In its five years, Kids in Service has established predominant ties to Warde Health Center in Windham, where participants of all ages typically stop by for visits and a special “wish granting” program.

But as the threat of the virus intensified, the facility and others like it were shuttered to visitors. Instead of waiting it out, Weller figured out how to keep supplying smiles.

“We’ve been working on sending them as much love as possible,” Weller said of Warde residents. “There is always a way to show support for others, that’s certainly one of the lessons lately.”

Connor, ready to start kindergarten in the fall, made 12 cards as of Monday, each featuring either a photo of just him or one with his dog.

“I love you,” Connor said of what he writes in each.

His dad, Alberto Chang, said his son is “on a transportation kick,” so it’s common for drawings of airplanes or boats to go on each card as well.

“It’s been a chance to talk to him about how the virus has prevented us from visiting anyone, and at the nursing home they don’t get any visitors right now,” Chang said.

The father and son visited Warde only to slip a bag containing the cards through the front door. Weller similarly stopped by on behalf of others who wrote notes for the seniors. 

She said children have also created “birthday boxes” distributed by Shepherd's Pantry, a Windham group known for feeding those in need.

“When financial times are tough, like they are now, birthday presents can be one of the first things to go,” Weller said. “With the birthday boxes, kids put cake mix, frosting, candles, decorations and small trinkets in a box.”

Parents anticipating their child's birthday can pick one up while gathering their regular supplies through Shepherd’s Pantry.

Weller, whose own children are now 10 and 13, started Kids in Service five years ago with a couple of friends.

“I wanted service opportunities for my own family and couldn’t find anything that included young kids,” she said. “I decided to create my own organization so they could serve others.”

It’s important to her to include as many young people as possible, she said, including those who can only hold a crayon but still recognize that their efforts made someone else happy.

“The teens do a bit more involved work,” she said. “Like making lunches for the homeless and fleece blankets.”

She added, “Empathy is the theme all the time. But it’s more important than ever right now, with what the world is going through.”

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