He’s 14 and has spent his free time — often whole days — talking with nursing home residents who couldn’t have other visitors because of COVID-19.

She’s 18 and has spent the pandemic stealthily posting uplifting notes on strangers’ cars.

She’s 16 and has written a book to help younger kids understand this new mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing, socially distant world they’re living in.

Not a lot of good comes out of a global pandemic. But these local kids are creating upsides in their own unique ways.

Nafisa Tasnia, 16, wrote “COVID-19 for Kids” to help younger children better understand the coronavirus and the important reasons for wearing a mask. Tasnia is a junior at Lewiston High School. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Nafisa Tasnia

Her younger cousins were always complaining about masks. They’re stuffy! They don’t want to wear them!

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So Nafisa Tasnia began asking them questions.

What is COVID-19? Why do we wear a mask?

“I noticed how they didn’t exactly know what it was and why we must do things,” she said. “So I decided one night I should write a book.”

Nafisa Tasnia, 16, wrote “COVID-19 for Kids.” It is available on Amazon. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Tasnia, 16 and an 11th-grader at Lewiston High School, was old enough to understand the global pandemic but young enough to still relate to the children who couldn’t. In August, on vacation from school, home and with spare time, she began to write.

Tasnia listed the topics her younger sister and cousins didn’t understand — why masks are important, for example — and then researched the answers. She found she had to simplify the answers. A lot.

“I wrote the same thing in many different ways. Then I tried to choose the one that would be the easiest for children to understand,” she said.

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The 24-page paperback is written for kids 6 to 8 years old. It covers COVID-19 and its symptoms, explains why it’s important to wash hands, wear a mask and keep distant from other people, and offers tips for wearing a mask and washing hands. Tasnia self-published “COVID-19 for Kids” on Amazon this fall.

While the book sells on Amazon for $7.50 and Tasnia hopes parents will start buying it for their kids, she has so far given a dozen copies to teachers. The reaction has been positive.

“When teachers told me that after reading ‘COVID-19 for Kids’ to their class and the kids learned something new or just simply enjoyed it, I felt very happy,” she said.

Brenden Veilleux, 14, began volunteering at d’Youville Pavilion in Lewiston to support his future career in health care, and soon realized his presence was making a difference, sometimes just by holding a hand. Submitted photo

Brenden Veilleux

He had been volunteering at d’Youville Pavilion for a year when the pandemic hit. His mother works at the Lewiston nursing home, and Brenden Veilleux thought volunteering there would be a good way to get experience for his future medical career.

He was right, particularly when it comes to the empathy involved in the health care field.

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“When people come into the hospital or d’Youville, you don’t know how their day’s going, you don’t know what’s happening outside. Most of the time they probably don’t want to be there,” said Veilleux, 14. “So if you can make their day just a little bit happier, that can mean a lot to somebody in that situation.”

Veilleux, a freshman at Spruce Mountain High School in Livermore Falls, went to the nursing home two or three times a week, 20 to 25 hours a week in the summer and almost every holiday. Because he caught a ride with his mom, a manager there, he often spent eight or nine hours at a time at d’Youville, where he helped wheel residents to activities, played board games with them, and often just held their hands and chatted.

When COVID-19 hit Maine last spring and everything shut down, Veilleux couldn’t return to d’Youville for a while. He was finally able to go back this fall, but he had to wear a mask, a face shield, personal protective equipment and keep his distance. The days of hand holding were over.

He remained undaunted.

“I really did enjoy that before the pandemic came,” he said. “You can’t do that anymore, but you can still have a really personal conversation with them.”

As a volunteer, Veilleux didn’t have to go back. He could have ridden out the rest of the pandemic safely ensconced at home, and he knew that. But he figured that if there was an outbreak, his mom could bring the virus home to him even if he didn’t go back himself. And, anyway, he missed his people. And they missed him.

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“I think going in during the pandemic, I think, helped the residents a lot,” he said. “Since they haven’t been able to see their children or their grandchildren, or sometimes great-grandchildren, I think maybe I might have reminded them of (their children) a little bit, kind of cheered them up in a way they might have.”

Veilleux had to temporarily stop his visits again recently when d’Youville had a COVID-19 outbreak. He can’t wait to go back again.

“When I went back (for the first time) a few weeks to a months ago . . . I saw a lot of smiles. A lot of faces lit up,” he said.

Val Hinkley slips a silk flower with an encouraging note under the windshield wiper of a stranger’s car in the Shaw’s parking lot in Auburn on Wednesday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Val Hinkley

For the last five years, Val Hinkley has been reaching out to classmates and strangers alike with massages of hope and encouragement. The Mt. Blue graduate is also Miss New England USA Ambassador Teen 2020.  Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

She started stealthily leaving the gifts for strangers last spring, when she was a senior at Mt. Blue High School in Farmington and not long after the pandemic took hold in Maine.

Faux flowers, with uplifting sayings attached, placed on random vehicles. Clothespins painted with messages like “You are brave” and “You are amazing” clipped to car doors.

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And, most recently, hand-painted tiles with encouraging messages, quietly placed at the local library and other public spots.

Val Hinkley’s favorite messages to send: “You are strong.” “You’re worth it.” “You matter.”

“They really take place in my heart because I know when I was in that bad place I felt like I couldn’t deal with it,” said Hinkley, 18 and now a freshman at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Hinkley originally got the idea to distribute uplifting and encouraging messages when she was a freshman at Mt. Blue. She’d been the target of bullies and the experience had left its mark.

“I kind of drew myself back from everything and I didn’t really like that. Usually I’m like that happy-go-lucky friend; I’m there for everyone,” she said. “I kind of wanted to take that bad situation and turn it around. I knew if I was feeling this way, there must be other kids feeling this way and I wanted to make sure they knew they were not alone.”

So Hinkley peppered the school’s lockers with sticky notes bearing inspiring messages. It got so much attention that she kept it up in various forms and later spoke to students at a local elementary school, who began doing their own version of Hinkley’s projects.

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Hinkley was a senior last March when she planned to continue her feel-good project — this iteration involved faux flowers and pencils — but school shut down before she could finish. COVID-19 had arrived in Maine.

She decided that shouldn’t stop her.

Some of Val Hinkley’s clothespins. Submitted photo

Hinkley estimates that since spring she has given out a couple hundred faux flowers, 50 clothespins and 15 tiles. The tiles were left in public spaces around her hometown of Wilton, while her flowers and clothespins with encouraging notes have been left on random cars in Portland, Farmington and other towns she’s driven through.

“I wanted to make sure that people, now with COVID, knew that they weren’t alone in experiencing whatever they were experiencing, because we’ve all been stuck at home. We haven’t been able to go into the world, and when we do we have to wear masks, we have to do this, we have to do that,” she said. “So when they got done shopping or whatever or they got done work, I wanted to make sure they had a little bit of something to smile about and make sure they knew there was someone there who wanted to make them a little bit happier.”

And what makes her smile during the pandemic?

“I get my joy from helping others,” she said.


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