The natural habitat of the high school student is anywhere other high school students are found. The school hallways, classrooms, the mall, the movies, and at whichever house is hosting a party. So what should we make of these reports from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that dozens of students are willingly spending their free time hanging out with senior citizens?
Suzanna Barna is the impetus behind this effort.
“When you live in an assisted facility like that it’s really hard sometimes to remain positive and optimistic because you know you’re nearing the end of life and it’s hard to cope with, but they get pure joy from us volunteering there and just being around young people, it makes them happy,” Suzanna said.
Visiting her grandmother at the Aston Gardens Senior Living Center made a profound impact on Suzanna. For the past three years, she’s been organizing activities for the old folks there, such as teaching the residents how to use smart phones and computers, and the staff says Suzanna is making a huge impact.
“She brings them joy, she brings them absolute joy, that’s the best way to describe it,” said Melanie Rivera, one of the managers at Aston Gardens.
Suzanna is breaking barriers, showing her peers how rich this experience can be. She’s recruited more than 70 classmates to volunteer at Aston Gardens, including one young man who was so moved, he wrote a poem about his friend to thank her for getting him involved.
“Friends make life more beautiful in many different ways, with smiles of warm affection, with words of love and praise,” said Daniel Tabares, reading his poem.
It’s fairly obvious from looking at pictures of the students interacting with the senior citizens that this volunteer effort is having as much an impact on the kids as it has on the elderly residents.
“I’d like to think so,” Suzanna said. “I’d like to think that they get a sense of reward from doing it and that they really genuinely enjoy spending time with the elderly.”
“It’s been one of the best experiences I think that I’ve had in high school, going there every week and participating and I have her to thank for all of that,” said Rebecca Scheid, a junior who says the effort will continue even after Suzanna graduates.
Suzanna is a senior and an academic star as well. She’s in the top 2% of her class of nearly 800 students. To attain that ranking, she has to have extremely rigorous classes which demand tons of work. So how does she find time for the senior citizens?
“Hard work and motivation to do it, because if I didn’t truly enjoy doing it I don’t see how I could make the time for it but it’s something I’m not willing to give up,” Suzanna said.
Her advisor in the Key Club, English teacher Laurie Edgar, says Suzanna’s not in it to pad her college resume.
“There’s a certain amount of love, of genuineness, of sincerity that she has, a true service heart,” Edgar said.
Suzanna wants to study engineering in college, so her volunteer project won’t necessarily inform her career choices. She says it’s much deeper than that.
“It’s impacted who I am as a person more so, like I will carry what I’ve learned with me forever.” Suzanna explained.
Wisdom, compassion, and an appreciation for her grandmother’s generation.