By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — A man in a plaid shirt leaned anxiously against the front window of the guest seating area at Wynwood of Niskayuna, an assisted living home on Union Street. Every time a bus neared the entrance to the parking lot, he perked up.
He wasn’t the only one hovering near the front door Dec. 11, waiting for students from Van Antwerp Middle School to arrive with their teacher, Michael Pletman. When they finally did stream in — more than 50 of them, carrying holiday crafts and Christmas ornaments — it drew even more of a crowd.
“Look at all the kids!” one man whispered excitedly as children in Santa hats crowded into the first floor meeting room and begin dividing up jobs. Some strung Cheerios to hang on the home’s two Christmas trees, while others hung ornaments. Some read to the residents, helped them put together foam snowmen to decorate their rooms or just chatted.
The group pours in to Wynwood every month during the school year, from September to June. The 18-year tradition has a reputation for being lots of fun, but their December visit is extra festive. It’s just that cheerful time of year.
“I always try to bring 35 [students], and this time 51 signed up on the first day,” Pletman said.
Snow almost derailed their visit, originally scheduled for the very snowy Dec. 9 when after-school activities were canceled for safety concerns.
But missing their visit to Wynwood simply wasn’t an option, so just two days later, the students showed up.
Big fan club
As soon as they walked through the door, students Brynn Lecakes, Katarina Mills, Caroline Skrebutenas and Isabella Polk struck up a conversation with resident Howard Hickin.
“My fan club is getting bigger all the time,” Hickin said proudly, showing off a small notebook he keeps clipped to the inside of his walker. It’s filled with drawings and signatures from his young visitors, the official fan club members.
“This is my first time meeting him, but I was really excited,” Mills said. Her friends had already told her about Hickin.
Initiation into the Howard Hickin fan club tends to start out with a history lesson. He served on a destroyer during World War II, and he keeps pictures of it close at hand, neatly bound in a presentation folder.
“I was right up there,” he said, pointing to a spot on the ship’s deck.
American history class ended abruptly when the girls asked Hickin’s opinion on the best way to decorate a foam snowman. With his help, they perfected it. Then, they moved on to reading him Christmas picture books and presented him with a handmade crown of Cheerios and string.
Many of the students said their comfortable relationship with the Wynwood residents took a little time. Several described feeling anxious before their first visits.
“The people are hard to talk to at first,” Mills said, on what was her second trip with the group.
The uncertainty didn’t last long, though.
“I love that I’m bringing the Christmas spirit,” she said.
Sixth-grader Nolan Beattie has been visiting Wynwood since this school year’s first excursion in September.
“I like working with the residents,” he said, as he patiently untangled a string of multicolored Christmas lights for the tree. “There’s always something new to do here.”
He was a little nervous at first, too.
“I didn’t know what was coming,” Beattie said. But now, he loves the monthly visits.
“It’s always this much fun,” he said.
The experience of volunteering is such an important part of some students’ middle school memories, they keep returning even after they’ve left Van Antwerp. Claire Karafanda, a junior at the high school, helps supervise the students and entertain the residents. Even her older sister Maddie, who graduated in 2014 and now attends the University of Rochester, comes back whenever she’s in town.
“I just really love the environment,” Claire said. “It’s really rewarding to talk to the residents and the kids.”
The sisters’ little brother, Will, is in sixth grade now and has carried on the family tradition of volunteering at Wynwood.
“Hopefully he continues it as long as Maddie and I did,” Claire said. “Something about it always made me want to come back.”
Yasmiry Lalindez, Wynwood’s residence program coordinator, supervises the middle school visits and sets out cookies and juice for the students before they leave. She said watching the relationships between residents and kids grow has been a touching experience.
“They have a great bond with the residents,” she said.
“On Veterans Day, they asked for Howard,” Lalindez added, confirming his celebrity status among the students. “It made him all teary.”
“The kids love it, because they hear their stories,” she said.
Lalindez coordinates a constant stream of activities for the residents, especially during the holiday season. But the Van Antwerp volunteers are an especially heartwarming presence.
“They’ve become family,” she said. “Most of [the residents] don’t have family here, so we become their family.”