Caring is their calling

Youth leaders ‘adopt’ an islander stricken with multiple sclerosis.

Missy the cat is hiding from “the Thursday people.”

The reclusive feline – an Island Health and Rehabilitation Center pet that has unofficially adopted resident Judy Kveitkauskas – retreats under the bedclothes when the teens, who named themselves for the day of their weekly visit, come calling.

The cat has had time to acclimatize; the youths have visited Kveitkauskas, who is paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, every Thursday afternoon since January.

BHS junior Roarke Kamber and sophomores Madison Adams, Ruthy Linne and Rebecca Feiten spend time with Kveitkauskas as part of their Elder Outreach Project, an effort to connect teens with older islanders, sponsored by the high school’s Youth Lead and Serve team and freshman Johanna Connor.

After the YLS teens attended a camp in Minnesota last summer – an event geared to motivate kids toward community service – Adams, who had been friends with Kveitkauskas for years, suggested the visits. The teens say the outreach was also inspired by their own family members and the challenges they face.

“It matters to me because of my grandpa, in knowing him and his (aging) situation,” Adams said. “I think we take the elderly for granted. They could be friends and a resource to us.”

The Elder Outreach Project encourages relationships between young people and elders through visits with residents of the island’s retirement centers.

The group selected four Island Health residents for an initial effort, which they hope will be extended by other Bainbridge teens.

The YLS team applied for and received a $500 grant from the Seattle Seahawks to record their elders’ oral histories and transcribe the tapes into a book for the Bainbridge Island Historical Society.

“There are four assisted-care facilities within a few-block radius of downtown Winslow, a relatively untapped resource that houses a wealth of historical information,” said Charisa Moore, who coaches the Youth Lead and Serve team with Dianne Juhl.

“You can access books and storytelling at the public library, but why not bring the stories of the past to life by hearing it from someone who actually lived and experienced it personally?”

Besides being a chance to share such personal recollections, the visits are for Kveitkauskas a chance to exercise her ready wit in games of Trivial Pursuit. And, for the outgoing 61 year old – whose face expresses all the animation her body no longer can – it is a chance to connect with the world at large.

Kveitkauskas, who came to the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s with her husband, has so-called “late onset” MS; the disease remained largely asymptomatic until she was 30.

“I remember that I had a hard time turning the pages of books when I was a child,” said Kveitkauskas, for whom even speaking is difficult. “Now I wonder if that wasn’t the beginning of the MS.”

In early middle age, she began dropping things and falling. Paralysis slowly ensued, until she was bed-ridden.

After some years at Messenger House, Kveitkauskas became a long-term resident of Island Health. Although she has a son in the area, the walls of her room hold pictures of grandchildren on the East Coast, family she misses.

The visits from the island teens help to fill the void. Although the students found the first few visits awkward, the friendships have since flourished.

“We do crosswords together,” Moore said. “She knows every actor in every old movie.”

Kveitkauskas also likes science fiction and mysteries, although she can only listen to books on tape. But she is not one to wallow in self-pity, and her “up” personality makes her attractive to the kids.

“She’s really smart,” Adams said. “You can never beat her in a game of anything that has to do with historical events, or anything that has to do with politics.

“Being around her makes you feel really lucky, because even though she’s disabled she’s just completely with it. She actually makes you wish you could be stronger.”

While getting to know Kveitkauskas has been a good experience for the teens, the outreach has also brought them face to face with mortality and change; two of the four elders selected for the project have since died, and the third has moved away.

“So we were doing some oral history,” Moore said, “but it kind of got cut short.”

The teens are mindful that the passing of the elders means that their stories may be lost, as well.

“It matters to me because of my grandfather who died a few years ago,” Linne said. “When I was younger, it was intimidating for me to talk with him because I didn’t know him that well.

“I took that time with him for granted and wished I would have connected with him more.”

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