A Senior-Year Surprise

High school graduation is a time for seniors and their communities to come together and celebrate the seniors’ accomplishments. For students in the class of 2020, senior year is turning out to be very different from what they had imagined. Many students have not stepped inside their schools for several months, and some have been forced to give up prom, class trips, and other senior-year traditions due to the pandemic.

“It ended very suddenly,” said Addison Thie, a senior at Washington High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “My last show choir competition got cancelled, and the next thing we knew, school got cancelled, and then prom. Everything just got cancelled in the same week.”

Her mother, Dawn Thie, said it has been difficult to watch her daughter miss senior-year milestones. 

“As a parent, we all have been feeling so helpless,” Dawn said.

In April, one of Dawn’s friends invited her to join a Facebook group for Sioux Falls residents called “Adopt a Class of 2020 Senior.” In this group, parents and guardians could post a photo of their senior along with information about their child’s hobbies, extracurricular activities, and post-graduation plans. A community member would then comment on the post to “adopt” the senior and celebrate them by sending words of encouragement, yard decorations, gifts, or cards.

Five minutes after posting her daughter’s information, Dawn received a message saying that Addison had been adopted.

The “Adopt a Class of 2020 Senior” Facebook group was started by Melanie Zeman, a fifth-grade teacher from Sioux Falls. She decided to start the group after a friend from Casper, Wyoming, told her about an Adopt a Senior Facebook group for seniors in Casper. Melanie could not find anything similar in Sioux Falls, so she decided to start her own group.

“I actually invited every single one of my Facebook friends. I just was hoping that it would spread, and it did,” she said.

Originally, the group consisted of people who lived within a thirty-mile radius of Sioux Falls. As word spread, people from Minnesota, Iowa, and western South Dakota started to join the group too.

“It’s become a lot bigger than I ever anticipated, and I love it,” Melanie said.

As the group administrator, Melanie ensured that every senior was adopted. Nearly 1,500 seniors were adopted between April 20 and May 20. 

“A lot of people wanted to adopt seniors who they have something in common with. We’ve made some cool connections that way,” Melanie said. “In fact, I’ve even heard of a few situations where people are mentoring the seniors for future jobs or have given them advice. Just making some of those networking connections has been really neat too.”

For Melanie, the best part of this experience was seeing how strangers developed relationships as a result of the Facebook group. Melanie encouraged people to adopt seniors they did not know. She said some people were hesitant to adopt a stranger at first, but most people embraced the opportunity to connect with someone new. One of her favorite stories was a senior who sent Mother’s Day flowers to the woman who adopted him on the Facebook page.

“Families are getting to know each other. Now people are family friends, and people are already planning to get together when COVID is done,” she said.

For some people, the Facebook group was an opportunity to meet new people. For Addison and her mother, it was an opportunity to reconnect with someone who had made an impact on Addison’s life.

Jenn Atkinson was a school counselor at Addison’s elementary school. She and Addison wrote letters to each other when Addison moved to middle school, but they eventually lost touch. When Jenn joined the group, she spent time scrolling through the list of seniors and looking for someone to adopt.

“I saw Addison’s name, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I wonder if she would remember me.’ I was just kind of overjoyed,” she said.

Jenn adopted Addison, and she has delivered a gift to Addison’s house each week for the past four weeks. Many of these gifts were dorm items for Addison to use when she attends the University of Sioux Falls in the fall. Jenn also remembered that Addison loved holiday decorations when she was in elementary school, so she found a Frankenstein Halloween tote and filled it with coffee-related gifts.

“I was just blown away,” Addison said. “I was not expecting it at all. I learned that the people around me definitely care about me.”

Jenn plans to talk to Addison in person when she delivers the last gift.

“As a school counselor, I’ve seen how hard it is on seniors this year, losing their prom and all of that pomp and circumstance,” Jenn said. “With no conventional ways to actually celebrate them, I just wanted to make somebody’s day a little brighter.”

Jenn is glad that Melanie decided to create the group.

“Melanie has always been such a caring and nurturing person,” Jenn said. “It’s such a beautiful way to honor the graduating class of 2020 that needed to be celebrated in a different way.”

In addition to serving as the group administrators, Melanie and her husband also adopted seniors. They chose a set of twins who recently lost their father. The twins’ mother had also died when they were young, so Melanie wanted to help them. 

“We had posted their GoFundMe on the senior site, and dozens and dozens of people wrote to me personally saying, ‘How can we help them? What more can we do?’” Melanie said. With the twins’ permission, Melanie gave their address to people who wanted to help. Members of the Adopt a Senior group sent money, gift cards, and condolences to the twins. 

“That just really touched my heart because that was a community coming together for one family who really needed it,” Melanie said. A few weeks ago, she even met the twins in person to deliver gifts.

Melanie said there were not specific guidelines about what people could do to celebrate their adopted seniors. To help people generate ideas, she created a “Gift Ideas” section on the page that featured information about small businesses in Sioux Falls. 

“That was another really positive thing that came out of it. I feel like this group helped some of those local businesses tremendously when they couldn’t be open to the public,” Melanie said.

Each post in the Facebook group showed a unique story of kindness. One woman dressed in a different costume every week to deliver gifts to her adopted senior. Another person organized a Veteran’s Motorcycle Club parade to celebrate his adopted senior’s departure for the Marines. Someone delivered baby clothing and toys to a senior who is expecting a baby.

In her fifth-grade classroom, Melanie uses the bucket-filling metaphor to teach her students about kindness. She encourages her students to be “bucket fillers” by doing kind things for others.

“Essentially, when you fill someone’s bucket, your bucket gets filled at the same time. I tell my students that when you do kind things for other people, you feel good about it too,” she said.

“We’re teaching these young people that, as a community, we pull together,” Melanie said. “Something negative happens or something sad happens, and as human beings we just get together and do whatever we can to make a difference for someone else. That’s a good reminder for these seniors.”

Brooklynn Gross

Brooklynn Gross, 18, is a senior at Harrisburg High School in Harrisburg, South Dakota. She enjoys reading, writing, playing piano, and volunteering. Brooklynn published a children's book about dental health, and she also teaches students about healthy-lifestyle topics through the South Dakota Teens as Teachers program. She hopes to become a high school English teacher and a children's book author.

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