Hartford high schooler helps seniors combat pandemic isolation with capstone project
Hartford Courant. Darcie Ortique. December 08, 2020.

A 17-year-old senior at Sport and Medical Sciences Academy, Oneiry Restituyo sets aside time every Saturday morning to read to an older woman she’s just getting to know.

Restituyo, who lives in Middletown and considers herself a bookworm, had hoped to visit nursing homes in person to read to residents for a capstone project she’s calling Senior2Senior. The worsening coronavirus pandemic made in-person visits impractical, so Oneiry is using Google Meet to connect with the woman each week via videoconference. She’s been working with the fortunate senior since Sept. 24.

Oneiry’s been reading Eli Weisel’s “Night” to her senior companion at One Macdonough Place, an assisted-living facility in Middletown. The book recounts Wiesel’s experience in Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz and Buchenwald from 1944-1945.

“I didn’t even notice until we started actually reading the book that the senior resident that I’m speaking with, she is actually Jewish, so she really liked the fact that was the book we started with,” Oneiry explained. “She really loved it and once we go through it, she would call me up and we’ll end up connecting it, connecting her history and all her knowledge and her life experiences to everything else going on in the book and it’s just heartwarming.”

Amy Boutilier, a SMSA teacher who is advising Oneiry on her capstone project, described her as a goal-oriented and ambitious scholar.

“I’ve only had Oneiry since September, but she is driven and she’s one of those kids where you make a suggestion and you turn around and within the next hour, she’s already followed through on it,” Boutilier said.

SMSA seniors are required to complete a community service project for their capstone in order to graduate. Boutilier helped adapt the capstone program into the SMSA curriculum back in 2013.

Although school is a lot different this year due to coronavirus safety measures including mask-wearing and social distancing, seniors at the Hartford magnet school are still required to complete their graduation requirements, including the capstone project.

“We have some serious issues with isolation” in regards to the pandemic, Boutilier said. “My concerns are the elderly and children. Oneiry kind of picked up on that, she knew she wanted to do something with the elderly, so from there, that kid ran.”

Despite her young age, Oneiry recognized the need to help older adults, especially those who feel isolated in the midst of the pandemic.

“I don’t think many people realize how important it is to just be able to talk with other people or just connect in a different way,” she said.

After researching some of the negative health effects isolation may have, she felt compelled to help.

“I want to give them a choice of a place where they can go and have someone be there and have someone listen to them,” Oneiry said.

Oneiry and her family are natives of the Dominican Republic and she had a special relationship with her late great-grandmother, who died at the age of 73 about four years ago.

“She was a huge role model and caregiver for me,” Oneiry recalled. “And when we came to this country, she actually ended up being alone over there with one of my aunts, but we were kind of like her life ... and when we came here, that just kind of made her feel more lonely and that’s something that I want to try and just kind of take away, especially right now.”

Due to the pandemic, nursing homes have been closed to visitors for much of the year. With coronavirus cases on the rise, many have once again implemented strict regulations.

“Some of these residents have just completely isolated themselves,” Oneiry said. “And I did my research paper on the toll that social isolation takes on people. ... I know how bad it can be. I want to at least give them a choice of doing something else.”

Oneiry is hoping to find like-minded people who can help to expand the reach of her project, either by offering to read to other residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities or by helping the residents of those homes with technology needs.

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