Lee Twins Win National MyImpact Challenge
On July 1, 2022, New Jersey twin siblings Jessica and Justin Lee, rising high school juniors, were recognized with a $500 Special Award in the first 2021-2022 National MyImpact Challenge, a national civics contest competition held by the esteemed national organization the Bill of Rights Institute. The goal of this contest was to recognize civic achievements across the country, designed to recognize young people who are effecting change in their communities. The local duo won the award for their volunteer project called Project End Loneliness, an initiative and non-profit they founded in 2020 during the pandemic, in which they began distributing cards with handmade origami cranes to nursing home residents. Inside the cards, there is a message of cheer as well as an offer to be pen pals with the residents.
The siblings have continued their work on Project End Loneliness ever since the beginning of the pandemic and have distributed nearly 2,000 cards to area nursing homes in New Jersey and in Connecticut. The impetus to start this project was their recognition of the social isolation felt by so many nursing home residents. They were acutely aware of the inability of these residents to see family and friends during this time, as nursing homes were locked down for extended periods of time during the pandemic. Their knowledge of their grandparents’ sense of isolation in their New Providence independent living facility, which was also locked down to visitors, made them more cognizant of the plight of similar elderly residents in nursing homes.
The Lee siblings had learned to make origami cranes from their grandmother, who is an avid origami enthusiast, and decided that this handmade item, affixed to a card which had a message of cheer and an offer to be pen pals with them, would represent an ideal token for nursing home residents. They hoped that these striking cards would serve as visual reminders to these seniors that someone was thinking of them, and available to correspond with them, if desired. They envisioned that nursing home residents could hang up the card in their rooms or display them on a night table, serving as a symbol of care and thought during a difficult time.
They have found participating in Project End Loneliness to be extremely rewarding in many ways. One of the pen pals and acquaintances they got to know was Ms. K, a former Parsippany teacher who was placed in a nursing home shortly after the beginning of the pandemic. Ms. K was initially hospitalized for a spinal cord tumor and infection, rendering her paraplegic, and remained in the nursing home for over a year. Ms. K states that the initial card she received in the nursing home, and subsequent emails and friendship that ensued, helped her to get through her darkest days in the nursing home. The Lee siblings also learned so much from Ms. K’s experience; they learned what it was like to possess extreme resilience, overcoming not only a life-altering illness and its tremendous dysfunction, but also the overwhelmingly lonely and trying situation of being in a nursing home during the height of the pandemic. In addition to Ms. K, the emails and in-person interactions they have had with people showing their gratitude for their cards and efforts has been immensely rewarding to both teens. “It’s an amazing and unbelievable feeling knowing that you are helping people, making an impact on their lives,” stated Justin Lee. “It’s been incredibly rewarding and we want to continue to try to make a difference in people’s lives,” added Jessica Lee.
As a result of Project End Loneliness, the Lees have determined that they both want to continue to volunteer to help people as much as possible in the future. Justin Lee stated, “I have realized how important it is to give back to society; each of us has the ability to do something to help make our society better.” His sister Jessica Lee concurred, “Everyone, from children to adults, can contribute positively to the lives of others.” They both wish to see Project End Loneliness grow, both in its scope and in its locality. Recently, they were involved in making the origami crane cards in person at a nursing home in Connecticut, teaching residents how to fold the cranes, and found this experience very rewarding. They would like to see Project End Loneliness clubs form across the country and even around the globe and are taking steps to establish clubs in regions such as Illinois and Canada this summer. Their sights are limitless, as they can see this project catching on around the world. “This project is one that anyone can do. All it takes is a little effort and a desire to help others. Our goal is to Cure Loneliness… One Crane at a Time!” This is a tremendous and lofty goal, with an appropriate and fitting tagline for their initiative and mission. Further goals include launching an app which can serve as a resource for loneliness – a go to place where all can reach out for information and a sense of community via blogs and chats. It appears that these two young award-winners are well on their way to making a difference in the lives of people near and far, working hard to reduce the problem of loneliness in the elderly as well as the population at large.