Ashley found StudentsCare at the start of the pandemic. She had volunteered extensively in high school and was looking for a way to serve her community while at the University of Miami. Little did she know that this experience would have such a profound impact on her life.
StudentsCare developed the Senior Buddy Program in April 2020, to provide virtual support to isolated and vulnerable seniors, a need brought to light by the pandemic. Ashley became one of our first volunteers to be paired with a senior buddy– Juan Wilches.
Juan was a native of Columbia, where he worked as an airline mechanic. He came to the U.S. with his wife in the 1990’s. His wife passed away in 2015. They had been married since they were 21 years old, she was the love of his life. Family was incredibly important to Juan. He had 6 children and more than 20 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He even had a great-grandchild Ashley’s age!
In the beginning Ashley and Juan were not able to meet in person, due to the pandemic, they connected over weekly phone calls. “I was scared at the beginning because of language. I speak Spanish but wasn’t sure it was enough to have thorough conversations with Juan,” said Ashley. Plus, she did not have a lot of friendships with older adults, beyond her grandma, and worried they would not have anything to talk about.
Ashley overcame her initial nervousness and as they talked, their friendship grew. Despite the age difference, she was 21 and he was 94 years old, they discovered they had a lot in common. “Our Fridays were the best,” said Ashley. “Friday’s I didn’t have class so instead, we just talked the entire morning. He helped me with cooking. We shared traditional Colombian recipes while he played some of his favorite old songs in the background.”
They spoke all the time. Juan became the grandpa Ashley never had. “He’s been a very positive light in my life,” said Ashley. When she had news to share, Juan was one of the first people she called. Finally, they were able to meet in person in 2021. They continued to talk most mornings until Juan passed away in April this year. This was a devastating loss for Juan’s family and for Ashley.
The story does not end here. Ashley was able to form a special connection with Juan’s daughters, Josefina and Martha, as they bonded over memories of Juan and the special man he was. Through this connection, Ashley found not just friendship but also an extended family that embraced her.
On December 3rd Ashley and Juan’s daughters, Josefina and Martha, returned to Residential Plaza Blue Lagoon with a mission to share the importance of intergenerational relationships and encourage other residents to participate in the StudentsCare Senior Buddy program. Josefina and Martha brought Christmas gifts to the staff that played such an important role in Juan’s life.
Ashley, Josefina and Martha were all nervous to return to a place that held so many memories of Juan, worried they would feel overwhelmed with emotions that Juan wasn’t there anymore. They were so happy we went! “I think Juan was proud of us that we spent time with other residents,” said Ashley.
Ashley’s connection with Juan and his family is one she will always treasure. She is grateful for StudentsCare and the opportunity to experience such an incredible journey of growth and love. “They changed my life. I am always going to be thankful to StudentsCare for what it has done for me.”
Thank you, Ashley, for exemplifying everything we want this program to be!
The StudentsCare Senior Buddy program partners with senior living facilities to connect isolated older adults with our trained and caring college student “Buddies”. Offering support and resources with compassion and care, we give older adults and their families a sense of comfort and reassurance that promotes hope and healing.
This program is sponsored in part by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.
You can make a difference in the life of a lonely older person in your community. Your support helps us build connections and care across generations.