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A lasting impact: following up with Parkway Place’s “Littlest Angel” volunteer

The name “John Henry” is famous at Parkway Place, and the red-headed boy behind it more famous still.

John Henry Donnelly, now 15 years old, began volunteering at the Houston senior living community when he was just 2. He came once a week with his mom and younger brother, carrying a roll of stickers and a fist full of tiny toy cars. Each day little John Henry was scheduled to visit, residents packed the doorway, eagerly awaiting their young friend’s arrival.

Today, more than 10 years and several growth spurts later, the teenager still holds a unique soft spot for senior adults. A soft spot that he says will stay with him for the rest of his life.

“I wanted John Henry to experience that key interaction with the elderly the way I had growing up,” explained his mom, who initiated her family’s involvement with Parkway in 2004 as a way to give back during Lent. “This population has so much to offer, especially to young people.”

John Henry’s visits to Parkway became less regular when he started school full time, but his appreciation for senior adults grew no less strong as he and his family maintained their relationship with the Parkway community. The boys didn’t get to know their grandparents well, so Parkway residents largely filled the role of elderly relatives.

One particular resident, Lynn Mathews, has watched John Henry grow up with a grandmotherly pride. Her late husband, David, lived in skilled nursing when John Henry first started visiting Parkway Place, and the families now consider each other close friends.

“The kind of person John Henry has become is just amazing to me,” Mathews said. “Some teens are self-centered, but he’s not. Being with older people has really made a difference with him.”

“I visited Mr. Mathews every time I went to Parkway Place,” remembers John Henry. “I’d go in and roll my toy cars on his bed. When he passed away, Mrs. Mathews gave me one of her husband’s books about cars because she remembered cars were something special we shared.”

Last summer, just before starting high school at Strake Jesuit, John Henry returned to Parkway to lead activities like Bingo and chair volleyball as part of his school’s initiatives to encourage freshmen to complete service hours with senior adults.

When John Henry walked through the doors again, Jackie Pigott, who’s worked in Parkway Place skilled nursing for 15 years, could hardly believe her eyes.

“I just remembered this tiny red-headed kid, kind of shy, so when he came back this summer, I was so amazed at how he had grown up,” she laughed. “I felt old!”

Pigott has seen firsthand the palpable impact children have on senior adults during her years at Parkway Place. Whether it’s a school choir singing at Christmas time or a consistent presence like John Henry, any interaction with children brings joy to residents.

“Any time the residents see children, they show this feeling of love,” said Pigott. “It’s this reminiscing of when they were children themselves. Seeing the intergenerational dynamic of young people interacting with the old is powerful. They connect almost on the same level.”

Mrs. Donnelly feels proud that her son has upheld an admiration for senior adults.

“John Henry, largely due to our visits to Parkway Place, is comfortable, respectful and appreciative of the elderly,” she said. “I love that, because of course I’ll be one of them one day!”

“Volunteering at a senior living community like Buckner is easy because they’re so welcoming,” she added. “It’s important for kids to develop a comfort with all generations, instead of just kids their own age. Sharing different kinds of experiences like these with your children is really special, and it brings you out of your own little world.”

In addition to his coursework, John Henry is heavily involved in Boy Scouts, runs track and hopes to earn his Eagle Scout badge soon. He’s not sure yet what he wants to do with his future, but he’s sure his time at Parkway Place will impact his life for years to come.

“Volunteering with senior adults is a great experience,” John Henry said. “These people are fun, nice and they have a good sense of humor. I hope my time with them impacted their lives as much as it’s impacted mine.”

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