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Second grader and Seventy-three-year-old Find Common Ground in the Midst of the Coronavirus

August 04, 2020

She’s seven. He’s seventy three. She loves art and so does he—and though she is shy and he has struggled with depression, they have found, in the midst of a global pandemic, a connection that transcends the world around them while managing to find beauty in it.

Their story was recently broadcast on KARE-11 and NBC Nightly News.

The seven-year-old is named Addie, and she and her mother Laudan recently learned about a Pen Pal Program at Cassia’s Augustana Apartments of Minneapolis. The program was designed to help residents who could not receive in-person visitors. When the family signed on, Augustana Apartments Chaplain Sarah Karber worked with Activities Director Gretchen Fulmer to find the right pen pal for Addie.

After looking at possibilities, Karber and Fulmer chose resident Gary Melquist, as he and Addie are both creative artists. The result has been a relationship that changed each participant’s life.

“Addie had a tough time this past spring, after being pulled out of second grade abruptly due to the virus,” her mother Laudan says. The young girl was unable to say goodbye to her friends.

For his part, Gary battled depression for years until his doctor helped him find the right medication. Writing poems and creating artwork made him a strong believer in the healing power of art.

Laudan believes getting to know older adults is especially suited to her daughter’s patient and caring personality. Getting to know Gary through his letters brought Addie a friend that helped her focus on the positive parts of her life instead of the hardships going on in the world.

“I was so shocked at how much they have in common,” Laudan says. “Both love art and science.” Gary made a list of his favorite music and musicians, including music he discovered at concerts he attended with his girlfriend. “Addie loved some of the older music she had never heard before. He is opening her eyes to new things,” adds Laudan.

Gary draws pictures for Addie and displays the artwork she shares with him in his apartment. In one letter, Gary sent a Mark Twain quote about travel being the enemy of bigotry. “I have had mentors, but with Addie, I feel maybe I can be a mentor too,” he says. He also shared that his current doctor, who is female, is the best doctor he ever had—and how important it is for women to become doctors and scientists.

“He does such a beautiful job of talking with her and making her feel strong and smart and part of a conversation,” Laudan says. “He is truly one of the kindest people and our entire family enjoys receiving his letters and art. Truly an amazing person with a very big heart.”

Knowing Gary has traveled all over the world and loves learning about other cultures, Laudan and Addie decided to bring some of their own Persian culture to him. Addie’s idea was to create a package with special items from the Persian market that included traditional Iranian cookies and art supplies.

Gary was extremely moved by the gift and continues to cherish letters he receives from Addie. “The Pen Pal Program brings the world outside to people inside,” he explains. “I don’t have a lot of children in my life and don’t go out much except to stores right now.” The opportunity to get to know Addie means a lot to him because “I think we can learn from each other,” Gary says. “I can’t wait until I meet her some day.”

Laudan marvels at how the current situation created an opportunity for her daughter to develop a relationship that is helping her grow. “We saved all the letters,” she says, recalling the letter Addie wrote to Gary that accompanied the package. “She sent him a list of her friends, and at the end, said, ‘You’re a really good friend, too.’”

She is seven. He is seventy three, and they have grown up in two completely different worlds. Yet, when the disease that brought them together lessens its grip on us, there is good reason to believe this special friendship will endure.