At this time of year, how do you count your blessings and express your thanks? At two UCC Council for Health and Human Service communities, they use leaves.
Angelus Plaza Senior Activity Center in Los Angeles – part of Retirement Housing Foundation's largest affordable housing community in the United States — and Arcadia's 15 Craigside in Honolulu are using autumnal trees to help residents, visitors and staff express themselves.
15 Craigside's Grateful Tree is an offshoot of the community's recent 8-week core values campaign. "Each week, we focused on one core value with TED Talks, social events, flyers, and a discussion group," said Leilyn Yamamoto, programs manager, who was instrumental in bringing the project to life. "As a way to wrap up the campaign and celebrate Thanksgiving, the idea of the tree seemed to sum it up perfectly."
The programs department created and put up an empty tree. Everyone who passes by the Grateful Tree is invited to write down on paper leaves the things, events, or people for which they are grateful. The leaves are then affixed to the tree. There's no limit to the number of leaves a person can fill out.
The results represent a wide range of expression, with leaves expressing thanks for everything from the wellness center and the staff, to more personal ties like family, freedom, and freedom of religion.
"My family, especially my daughter," wrote one resident. "The meal servers," wrote another. A third summed up the staff, "Thank you for everyone here. Bless them for everything they do."
The Thanksgiving Tree at Angelus Plaza had a slightly different genesis, started as a way to bridge the gap between community members from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. Amber Johnson, center director, knew that the center — which draws from the local area as well as from Angelus Plaza residents — includes people who left family behind in other countries, and were dealing with isolation and loneliness. She saw expressions of thanksgiving as a way to fulfill RHF's mission of improving the lives of older adults.
"I came up with the Thanksgiving Tree by taking stock of our resources: a busy center wall where people pass every day, a staff member who is skilled with creating murals, and an abundance of people, places and things to be thankful for," said Johnson. "I knew that the more seniors we could encourage to express gratitude for the simple things, and see their gratitude on display — often written in their native tongue — the more that a sense of contentment and even happiness would spread through our community to start the holiday season."
A basket of paper leaves sits next to the tree. Instructions are written in four languages — English, Spanish, Korean, and Mandarin Chinese — and everyone is encouraged to write their thanks on the leaves. As with 15 Craigside, there is no limit to the number a leaves a person can write on.
"The Thanksgiving Tree has been a hit so far, and will definitely become an Angelus Plaza Senior Activity Center tradition," Johnson added. "For the participants to see something they helped to create grow as more and more leaves are added — it's inspiring to everyone, creates a sense of pride and ownership in the center, and unites everyone in gratitude. All of this leads to the happiness and well-being that we strive to provide."
For both CHHSM ministries, the trees provide a means for helping older adults feel part of the community, and to know they are supported and loved.
Johnson followed up the tree with "gratitude journal" workshop to help participants learn the connection between feeling grateful and happiness. It was such a success that a second workshop is slated for December.
At 15 Craigside, helping community members feel connected means continued focus on Arcadia's core values. Yamamoto said the values apply to both life and work. They include the mandate to "be humble, understanding, gentle, just, merciful, honest, peaceful, and faithful," she added.
And the practices are working. One leaf on 15 Craigside's tree reads, "Grateful for the love and acceptance I've received since coming to live here."
Thanksgiving blessings to all.