3/14/2013 9:00:00 AM 'OLD SOUL' Teen volunteer brightens
lives at Teresian House
BEST FRIENDS: Morgan developed a special relationship with Sister Maribeth Tobin, RSCJ, a Teresian House resident who died last summer. “She was unlike anyone I ever met,” Morgan said. “She was so young at heart, so well-educated and so fun to talk to.”
Morgan visited the sister every Sunday and two to three times a week during summers. She was at her bedside three minutes before she passed away. “We think Sister Maribeth waited for Morgan to get there,” said Morgan’s mother, Cindy. “It was just so beautiful.”
Morgan gets emotional about Sister Maribeth’s death: “She was my best friend. She taught me so much.”
Morgan wrote about her friend in a school essay about heroes: “I struggled with believing in myself; she excelled at self-confidence. I sometimes questioned how genuine other people were; she welcomed everyone with open arms. I found it hard to express love and gratitude to those closest to me; she showed appreciation with every smile, conversation and hug."
Below, Morgan signs "apple" with Glorinne, another Teresian House resident.
Sixteen-year-old Morgan Olson always chooses bingo over TV, sitting with the elderly over going to the mall and running therapeutic programs with dementia patients over family trips. Simply put, she prefers senior citizens to senior schoolmates.
The junior at Guilderland High School, who attends St. Adalbert's parish in Schenectady, has logged almost 400 volunteer hours at Teresian House nursing facility in Albany over the past two years. But she'd never dream of using those hours simply to impress colleges on her applications.
"It gets me through my week," Morgan said of her Sundays at Teresian House, where she teaches sign language, dresses up as characters, employs a therapy dog, spends time with residents who don't have regular visitors and uses technology to help them communicate.
"It has changed my life in such a positive way. I've gained so much self-confidence. I feel that I'm among people who appreciate the little things in life," she continued. "I'm with people who realize they can't take anything but memories to the grave. The friendships I make there are unlike anything I've ever had."
The feeling is mutual: Staff members at the 300-bed facility consider Morgan an invaluable asset who needs little direction and displays more finesse with the population than many adults.
"She connects with them," said Kelli Hawver, director of rehabilitation and a speech and language pathologist at Teresian House. "It's almost kind of an 'old soul' sort of thing. There is nobody that compares to Morgan. It's the level of maturity and just her intuition. She 'gets' working with the folks better than some of our staff."
Mrs. Hawver said Morgan's impact on the residents is palpable: "They sit there and they beam," she said. "She has touched so many people's hearts."
Morgan's interest in senior citizens dates back to elementary school. She once dressed as an elderly woman for Halloween, but not in a mocking way, according to her mother, Cindy: "It would be like a little boy dressing up like Superman."
I'll be back
When Morgan was in middle school, her school's orchestra played two concerts at Teresian House. It was love at first sight: "Half of the residents were asleep," she said with a laugh. "The other half were probably hard of hearing - but I enjoyed it anyway."
She did some gardening there in middle school and then called the facility in 2010, intending to volunteer twice a month. Mrs. Hawver soon discovered the new volunteer knew sign language - Morgan had taken two adult classes in the fifth grade and is now practically fluent - and approached her about starting a program with the 51-bed dementia unit.
Sign language is one way to maintain motor coordination, concentration, vocabulary recognition, word-finding and social skills, Mrs. Hawver explained.
After one session, Mrs. Hawver knew she wouldn't have to supervise Morgan. And "I decided right away I wanted to [do it]," Morgan told The Evangelist.
"There's this connection I have to them, and I can't explain it," she said, adding that activities will coax some normally silent residents to speak, laugh or smile: "They're in their world. You can't take them out of their world; you have to go into theirs."
Lost and found
When she's teaching sign language, Morgan spends a half-hour to 40 minutes - a mere slice of the four to seven hours she devotes on Sundays -showing a group of residents the seasonal cue cards she made just for the program and demonstrating signs. They don't remember what they learned the previous week - and often don't remember Morgan, sometimes even accusing her of wrongdoing.
"These are people who eventually forget their family members. It's not just your memory loss; it's also a personality thing," Morgan said. "But a lot of them are open to learning new things. My purpose is to engage them in an activity. I want to show them that there is somebody who wants to be with them."
She also tailors iPad apps to residents' interests and does the same with iPods. When she found out Teresian House was collecting MP3 players last year, she collected more than a dozen at a school event within a month.
Mrs. Hawver said one resident "was beside herself to hear Italian" through the app Morgan picked out for her. "She just thinks of this stuff. I didn't think of that."
None of Morgan's peers accompany her on volunteer days - which also include school vacations, Thanksgiving and Christmas - but it doesn't faze her. "I'm content being alone there," she said. "It never feels like volunteering. It feels like spending time with family."
Classmates were brought to tears when she delivered a speech about respect for the elderly in school. Still, "I get the giggles and the laughs from them" about how she spends her free time, she said. "They don't understand it. I'm just truly happy with who I am, what I do."
Morgan's other priorities are academics, faith and family. She enjoys seeing her grandparents and going kayaking, swimming and fishing with her parents and younger brother.
"We feel like couch potatoes around her," said Mrs. Olson, who has volunteered with her daughter a few times. Mrs. Olson get nervous in the dementia unit, but "Morgan just knows exactly what to do. We just follow her lead - which is a very weird feeling as parents."
Other volunteers have told Mrs. Olson her daughter inspires them to do better.
"It just blows us away," Mrs. Olson said. "We kind of look at it as a calling."
Morgan is thinking of becoming a geriatric physician's assistant. She says the lessons she's learned as a volunteer abound and will stick with her forever.
"The people who are closest to leaving us are the ones definitely in need of our time," she said. "A smile can change someone's day. [Don't] hold off on saying things, because you don't have endless time. It's so important to be open with the ones you love."
Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013
Article comment by:
Morgan is my husband (Don) and my niece. When we first read the article Morgan wrote it brought tears to our eyes. She is a wonderful, thoughtful and loving young woman and we are so proud of her. And for the first time my husband was absolutely speechless after reading the article. We love her dearly and she brings great joy to our family.