Bonnie, a resident of Heritage Communities, holds a letter and handmade gnome from a third-grade student at St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic School in Omaha. ERIN ALBERS


Christmas letters spread cheer, teach valuable lessons

Christmas can be a lonely time of year when you live in a nursing home or assisted living facility. This is especially true for those who have recently lost a spouse.

“It’s a hard time of year for anyone who’s experienced a loss, but especially if you’ve lost a spouse,” said Erin Albers of Heritage Communities in Omaha.

For over 20 years, a Christmas letter-writing campaign begun by third-grade Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of Omaha has tried to bring some joy to those suffering this time of year.

The idea for the campaign came about when Jeri Piechoski was the computer technology teacher at St. Wenceslaus Catholic School in Omaha in the early 2000s. A state-mandated language arts assessment required third-grade students to learn to write a proper letter, including an appropriate salutation and signoff, correct grammar and more. The body of the letter was to inform a space alien about all the fun things to do in Omaha.

Piechoski talked to a fellow teacher who told her students had been writing these letters for years.

“She and I put our heads together, and I said, ‘Why are they still writing letters to space aliens?’ We laughed, and I said, ‘Let’s find a good audience.’ So, we decided the third-graders should write local senior citizens about their plans for Christmas,” she said.

Students would hone their writing skills and master the art of letter writing. Seniors would get to read about Christmas through the eyes of a child.

Around this time, Piechoski’s ailing mother was using Home Instead. Piechoski decided to contact Albers, who worked at Home Instead at the time and now works at Heritage Communities, to see if she could use the letters. Albers’ immediate response was, “Oh my goodness! I would love it!”

What started with 100 letters quickly blossomed.

“The first year, Erin said, ‘100 is good,’ and the following year she asked for 300. Then it was, ‘Can you give me 600?’ After that, more Catholic schools got involved and we lost count,” Piechoski laughed.

Piechoski said schools would receive notes and calls from seniors thanking the children for writing to them. Albers knows firsthand how much those letters mean to seniors.

“They (the seniors) save the letters,” Albers said. “They will pin them up in their rooms or apartments, and they will keep them up year-round and read them over and over. They are so precious.”

One Heritage resident told Albers that it makes her smile “to see the handwriting of a child and the innocence of their stories.” She added that she feels blessed that others think of her during the holidays.

Seniors aren’t the only ones who benefit from the letters, however. Piechoski said the project teaches students the importance of reaching out to those who are lonely or hurting.

“The kids understand that a real person is going to open their letter and it’s going to touch their heart,” she said. “They know that part of being Catholic is sharing your love and the Holy Spirit. Especially during Advent, but all throughout the year.”

Piechoski has since retired and moved to Arizona. Much to her delight, the letter-writing campaign is still going strong. Albers continues to be amazed at how much time, effort and thought go into the letters.

“They are written so nicely, and they draw pictures to go with them. You can tell it’s not just a card they’re doing quickly at craft time,” she said. “Students from St. Stephen the Martyr even made little gnomes and Christmas trees to go along with their letters.”


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