“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kind word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
― Thérèse de Lisieux
The ladies and gentlemen weren’t sure what to make of the nearly one dozen bag-carrying strangers roaming the hallways at Homestead Rehabilitation Center on Wednesday.
One by one the strangers knocked on doors, stepped inside and introduced themselves with a gentle handshake.
“I want to deliver a couple of cards for you today,” Shane Kennett said, reaching into her gift bag and pulling out the colorful turkeys created by school children throughout Lincoln.
“These kids just wanted to give you a little love for this Thanksgiving,” Kennett said, going back into her bag and pulling out a bright blue daisy.
“When you look at these cards and flowers, remember that there are people in this community who love you.”
In all, Kennett and her army of volunteers delivered 800 flowers and 1,500 cards to the people residing in Lincoln’s nursing homes, retirement communities and assisted living centers.
The artificial flowers and cards were not the real gift -- they were the way to get in the door, Kennett said.
The real gift is time -- to sit with a stranger, listen to her stories, let him know he is not forgotten, show them they are not alone.
It’s all about human connection and love, Kennett said.
And it was all inspired by a tiny elderly lady named Shirley Clark.
* * *
This story begins 14 months ago with Kennett’s daily jog along South 48th Street.
Each day she ran past “this tiny little white-haired crippled old lady with huge sunglasses slowly walking up the hill.”
“I passed her so many times,” Kennett recalled.
Eventually Kennett made eye contact and smiled.
Over time, the two waved to one another.
“One morning, I saw her in the distance and told myself I’m going to stop and introduce myself to this lady,” Kennett recalled. “I remember telling her that I admired her perseverance in tackling the big hill.”
The lady said her name was Shirley.
She told Kennett how she used to talk on the phone every day with her sister. But then her sister died. Now she had no one.
Kennett was struck by Shirley’s sadness.
Bent over by old age and an arthritic body, Shirley had never married. Had no children. No car. No visitors.
And only four teeth.
“I‘m tired of eating oatmeal,” Shirley confided to Kennett.
Kennett offered to bring her food. Shirley declined.
“How about I come visit you?” Kennett asked.
Shirley said she’d like that.
“As I ran down the hill I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I done,'” Kennett recounted.
Words said in kindness that could not be taken back. Words that were a promise to a lonely stranger.
The exchange occurred in early November 2015.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, the New Year came in a flurry, keeping Kennett too busy to fulfill her hastily made promise.
In February 2016, with Lent approaching, Kennett, a devout Catholic, decided it was time to see Shirley.
But even as she drove to the retirement center, she tried to talk herself out of it.
“Why am I doing this? She won’t remember me ... ” Kennett recalled. “Then I looked at my phone for the time and decided no matter how hard and awkward this was, I would visit for one hour.”
She knocked on Shirley’s door.
“She opened the door with a teeny crack and invited me in,” Kennett said.
The room was Spartan, a card table, a few folding chairs and a recliner covered with a sheet which served as Shirley’s chair as well as her bed.
Sitting in the dark, stifling hot room, they talked about life, about family, about growing up in Lincoln.
Shirley loved to talk.
“I was so warm I wanted to leave right away,” Kennett said. “But I had vowed to stay for one hour, and I glued myself to the chair.”
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Then as Kennett stood up to leave, the words tumbled from her lips: I will come back and see you again.
“On my way home, all I could think about was how grateful I was for all the people in my life that I love and love me back. I thought about what it meant to be able to have a conversation with somebody who actually cared about you or listened to you talk.”
She thought of the teachings of Mother Teresa:
“We can cure physical disease with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread, but there are many more dying for a little love.”
That described Shirley.
“She's dying on the inside … waiting to be loved by someone or waiting to die,” Kennett said.
“Until I met Shirley, I was completely unaware of how crushing true-deep-loneliness is. The terrible darkness and isolation that carries a crushing weight,” she said. “... She was starving to be loved.”
Kennett now truly understood what St. Teresa meant when she called loneliness the most terrible poverty.
And she knew God was speaking to her through Shirley.
And so the Lincoln mother of four returned weekly to visit Shirley.
“It was a great experience, but it wasn’t easy,” Kennett recalled.
Sometimes they went shopping or out for cookies or ice cream. Other times they drove to Holmes Lake Park. Once Kennett bought a kite, and together the two sailed it high in the air.
One day, Kennett and Shirley stopped at the Cookie Company, where Kennett’s youngest daughter Emma works. Shirley was invited to pick out any cookie that she wanted.
Emma, 18, remembers how Shirley looked over each cookie, pondering her choices. In the end, she picked out the one with the most chocolate, Emma recalled.
“She was very excited and grateful for it,” Emma said. “It was one little tiny cookie, but it made her so happy.
“I watched my mom walk her out, assist her into the car. … That moment stuck out, and I knew I wanted to help my mom and go see her too. I could see that Shirley was lonely and that the little things counted with her. I wanted to do that.”
Older sister Summer, 21, also got involved.
Shirley’s room “was just a lonely place,” Summer said. “It was very small, and she didn’t have much in it.”
But when the Kennetts arrived, it was obvious that Shirley “was definitely ready to get out and adventure with us,” Summer said. “We helped her get into the front seat. She looked so cute -- she reminded me of a little kid, enthralled with everything out of the window.”
That day, they all went out for ice cream -- and again Shirley pondered over the multitude of choices.
“The thing that was special about seeing Shirley is that all she wanted to do was sit and talk,” Summer said. “People my age want to be entertained. … It was a really good breath of fresh air.”
Shirley looked forward to their visits. Staff at the retirement center told them how Shirley always watched out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of them coming up the walk.
One day, Kennett introduced Shirley to her Facebook friends and shared a dream -- to help Shirley get some teeth.
Kennett took Shirley to the Clinic with a Heart. Unfortunately, Shirley’s jaw was too deteriorated to hold dentures.
But Kennett’s friends donated money. Others sent Shirley gift baskets and gift cards.
Despite the gifts and shopping excursions, Shirley didn’t want things. Given the choice of anything in the store, her selections were always modest -- a package of sugar cookies, a Reese’s peanut butter cup, a wild tie-dyed cat T-shirt on clearance.
“What she wanted most was a personal connection, a warm presence,” Kennett said. “To have someone spend time with her and listen to her.”
On Aug. 23, Kennett’s birthday, she hopped in the car to take Shirley out.
When she arrived at the retirement center, staff pulled her aside. Shirley had died four days earlier -- the day Kennett and her daughters had talked of visiting Shirley but put it off to get stuff done.
“What we did not realize was at that very hour we were talking about visiting Shirley, she was taking her final breaths.
“We missed that opportunity to hold her hand and be with her when she died,” Kennett said.
The loss was profound.
“Then I thought of all the Shirleys in the world. What would they want? Human interaction," Kennett said.
For a time, Kennett tagged along with a friend and her therapy dog to care centers. But she wanted to do more. All she needed was an in.
Then she remembered the money her friends had donated for Shirley's teeth.
She used the money to buy 600 artificial flowers, and enlisted her friends, their kids and the children in Lincoln’s Catholic and public schools to make handmade cards to accompany each flower.
She thought asking for 600 cards was a stretch. But when the number climbed well beyond that, Kennett went out and bought 200 more flowers.
Wednesday, Kennett and her volunteers fanned out across Lincoln with their bags of flowers and cards.
“The people I really wanted to reach are the sickest, the oldest and the loneliest,” she said.
‘It’s not about the flower or the cards, it is about the love behind the flowers and the cards,” Kennett said.
“Everyone needs and craves human interaction and to know they are loved.”
“It is really easy to get in the train of thought: I’m too busy. What will it matter? I’ve shown love,” Kennett said. “But we can never love enough."
And she repeats the words of St. Teresa: “We can all do small things with great love.”