Archdeacon: A heartwarming project in the time of COVID-19

‘An amazing experience’ for UD athletes, residents at Suites at Walnut Creek

Soon after Megan Gist, a 20-year-old infielder on the University of Dayton softball team, settled into her chair, her computer screen lit up with the image of 89-year-old Dr. Jim Costas, himself a former UD student and a longtime Dayton dentist, who now lives with his wife, Toni, in the assisted living Suites of Walnut Creek on Lamme Road.

And instantly her Zoom connection lived up to its name.

“As soon as he got on camera, he was like ‘Megan! I got some stuff to tell you!’” Gist said with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m ready!’”

And for the next 45 minutes, they – but mostly Jim – talked and talked and talked.

“I think I burned the girl’s ears,” Costas laughingly admitted a few days ago.

Their conversation last month was the first of some 25 virtual exchanges between UD athletes and Walnut Creek residents from the assisted living and memory care units. It was part of a unique, sometimes challenging and especially heartwarming project that benefitted both sides in these unsettling COVID-19 times.

Gist and Hannah Osland, a junior midfielder on the soccer team, are the community service co-chairs of UD’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC), a group that acts as a voice for all Flyers’ student athletes and helps get them involved on campus and in the community while building bridges to the administration and especially to each other.

“Being able to give to the community is one of the pillars of being an athlete at Dayton,” said Krystal Warren, an associate athletics director who is the SAAC advisor. “It’s about service and doing something for the common good.”

Each year SAAC is involved in a number of projects like the Buddy Walk with the Miami Valley Down Syndrome Association, the Making Strides breast cancer walk and Habit for Humanity. It arranges for athletes to read to students at various local schools and at boys and girls clubs and it is especially involved with Christmas on Campus when thousands of area children descend on UD for a night of fun.

But the raging coronavirus pandemic has upended all of that in 2020, just as it has severely curtailed normal campus life for the students and especially wrecked the athletic competitions for most Flyers teams.

While the school has found a way to overcome the classroom restrictions – thanks especially to Zoom instruction – and has managed to cautiously tiptoe back toward some sports competitions, getting involved again in the community had proved to be a real dilemma for SAAC.

“I imagine they were thinking ‘Man, we’re letting everyone down. We’re not doing the normal things we do in the community,’” Warren said. “And that’s when I asked them to think up things outside the box.”

Gist and Osland realized another group hit far harder than student athletes were the senior citizens. who are more susceptible to the virus and, consequently, have been kept more isolated in their assisted living suites and nursing homes.

Visitors have not been allowed inside most facilities since March and connections with families at Walnut Creek have had to come through phone and FaceTime calls, as well as occasional window conversations or meetings just outside the facility where guests are limited and everyone must wear face masks and stay socially distanced.

“Many of our people are getting very lonesome being cooped up,” said Janese Ashworth, the activities director of Walnut Creek’s assisted living wing. “While they do talk to their families, they no longer get that community interaction.”

To remedy that, Gist and Osland and others began to toss around ideas and eventually someone suggested doing a dance video or even a live performance featuring the music and dances of the senior citizens.

“We’re all athletes, so I think we’d have some rhythm,” Gist laughed. “It might have been ugly, but we would have had fun.”

But they then decided the prime concern was the senior citizens and they had to make sure they had some “fun.”

The athletes wanted to do one-on-one conversations, but personal exchanges would not work.

“We’re doing all our classes on Zoom, so we automatically thought maybe we could do our talks with the residents like that,” Gist said. “But at first, I’ll admit, we were like, ‘Will they be able to figure it out?’”

The chasm that was there because of COVID, a differing embrace of technology and the three generation gap between the students and seniors was wonderfully spanned thanks to Ashworth and especially Walnut Creek IT director Steve Wilson, who set up the computer connections and even helped match students with residents who shared an interest.

“Beforehand I actually did ask my mom, ‘What do you think they would want to talk about?’” said Emma Thomas, a senior soccer player from Moon Township, Pa. outside Pittsburgh.

But when she began her conversation with Ruth Widman, Thomas said, “It just flowed and I found out we had a lot in common.”

Widman had been a college athlete herself, playing field hockey and tennis at Denison University. And her late husband had been a football player at DePauw University and then in the Army.

Hannah Osland, a mechanical engineering student from Scottsdale, Ariz., found common ground when she was matched with Tina Schmidt, whose late husband, Bernhard Schmidt, taught engineering at UD for 52 years and now has an engineering chair and a scholarship fund named after him there,

Dr. Jim Costas said he told Gist about how things “used to be” on campus. How “the brothers and fathers were like second parents to us.”

The other day, he added with a laugh: “I probably shouldn’t tell everybody, but once in while the brothers – but never the fathers – they’d go down to Kramer’s on Irving Avenue and have a beer with us.”

During the conversations, the senior citizens learned some things about the students, too.

Marge Kirkpatrick, who had gone to Bob Jones University and for years been a third and fourth grade teacher on Dayton’s West Side, was surprised when she was matched in separate conversations with UD athletes Susie Issenmann, Will Harper and Pete Schulteis.

“Susie’s a rower and the boys are tennis players,” she said. “I had no idea those sports were available for UD students.”

And when 91-year-old Joe Liffick talked to Logan Tate, a redshirt sophomore cornerback on the UD football team, he found himself matched with a first generation college student and a repeat Pioneer Football League Honor Roll student who is making the most of his opportunity.

When there was a glitch, Wilson and the students found a way around it.

“Tina is hard of hearing and because she couldn’t hear, I heard her kind of mutter to Steve: ‘This is useless!’” Osland said.

“But then we figured out to use the chat tool in Zoom, so I’d type out my questions to her and they’d appear on her screen. She just lit up after that. She really enjoyed the conversation I believe.”

When Tina spoke to another student, she even had Steve read him a remembrance she had written out.

“It was her favorite childhood memory, about a fruit tree that grew in their yard and how her mom made them wait to grab the one new pear to get ripe,” Wilson said. “It was just a beautiful little story and later – like I did after every session – I thought: ‘Even though this is a lot of work to make happen, it is awesome.’

“I’m just so proud of our residents and the students. I felt really good afterward.”

Using their platform as athletes

Tate grew up in Mount Vernon, northeast of Columbus. His dad is from East Cleveland and his mom was raised in Mount Vernon and nearby Danville, population 1,000.

“My mom was real young when she had me – just 18 – and she ended up raising me on her own,” he said. “She’s a survivor. All I can remember my whole life is her working at last two jobs at once. She had had two kids three years apart and she did the best to provide for us and give us opportunities. I have a lot of respect for her

“And that’s why in college I want to make her proud. I’m kind of living her dream out, but I’m making my own dreams happen, too.”

He joined the Flyers as a walk-on, played in four games as a freshman last year and had worked hard in the offseason to push himself near the top of the depth chart this season.

He said he could not have come to a much better place than UD:

“Dayton’s size is an advantage. It’s just small enough where you can make an impact on the campus and in the community and yet it’s big enough where you have connections all around the world. And if you’re in sports, there’s even the connection now to the pros with Adam Trautman and Obi Toppin.”

Gist is from Modesto, Calif., but wanted to go to school somewhere different and at first was courted by Indiana University. But before she could make a visit, the Hoosiers roster filled up.

She still thanked the coaches there for their consideration and that show of character prompted them to tout her to UD coach Cara LaPlaca, who then scouted her and brought her in to see the campus.

“My parents raised me to focus on life after softball and I especially liked it that Coach LaPlaca is very big on developing us as young women in the world and not just athletes,” Gist said.

“I like it that we have such a high platform here as an athlete and I feel if you’re not using that to people’s advantage and helping them, that’s an injustice.”

‘We all got something great out of it’

Because the UD athletes found a way to keep doing that, even in these isolating times of COVID, they should be commended said Wilson:

“They deserve recognition because this was all their idea.”

“And bless their hearts, they were very polite, very kind when they listened to the stories and, in a few cases, heard a resident repeat them again and maybe again,” said Ashworth.

The Walnut Creek residents deserve a tip of the cap, as well. They embraced technology they had never experienced before.

“I’m from a different era,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was a treat for us.”

Widman felt the same: The technology is amazing. I enjoyed it. It was so good to talk to young people. I hope the learned something, too.”

Gist said: “It was such a cool experience on both sides. We all got something great out of it.”

Emma Thomas agreed: “After my conversation, I called Hannah right away and said, ‘That was an amazing experience.

“I had my call on a Monday morning and it just set up my week to be great the rest of the way. I just felt good.”

Logan Tate said he not only was left with a good feeling, but he had gotten some sage advice from Liffick:

“He told me something that really resonated with me, especially with the way I was brought up. He said, and I quote: ‘Don’t expect anything from anybody, but give everything to everybody.’”

That’s the way the UD athletes approached this venture with the Walnut Creek residents and they all say they ended up getting back more than they ever expected.

Dr. Jim Costas said he fears that’s the case, in more ways than one, with his athlete:

“Yeah, poor Megan… I think I burned that girl’s ears!”

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