The power of connection is a powerful catalyst for growth, especially when it brings together strangers who become friends. Fortunately, for a group of pre-K to fifth graders and a community of elders, a powerful and passionate connector entered their lives.
Heidi Whitehead, founder of Little Sprouts Friendship Garden in Denver, Colorado, makes new connections easily. “I’m the person who’s likely to talk to the person checking out my groceries at the store and call them by name. I think it’s something that’s been missing—the power of bringing people together, sharing experiences, and allowing people to be seen and feel valued. It shines a light on our shared humanity. If we stay in our own little bubbles, I think we really miss out on a lot.”
It’s a lesson she imparts to her young charges, who learn about inclusion through the Little Sprouts curriculum. “We talk about what makes us different and what makes us all the same,” says Whitehead, who is also a member of Unity Spiritual Center Denver. Whitehead started her school because she wanted to instill a deep sense of community, connection, and spirituality in her daughter, Hazel, now 11.
“I spend a lot of time reminding the Little Sprouts that they are changemakers,” explains Whitehead, who is also mother to two 19-year-old sons. “We talk every day about how to put love out into the world and how to shine our heart lights brightly through acts of kindness. I can only trust that these truths become cellular in their growing minds and bodies.”
“We talk every day about how to put love out into the world and how to shine our heart lights brightly through acts of kindness.”
To reinforce these truths, Whitehead got the children involved in the youth and elders program at Bessie’s Hope in Denver. She brings her students together with residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. “We visited the elders twice a week and would have dance parties, plant seeds and play games, do arts and crafts, put on a puppet show, and read stories together,” Whitehead explains. “Most of the students have had limited experience interacting with elders prior to our visits. Some kids warm up right away; others take a little while longer. Some kids are quick to offer a hug or a handshake, to hold hands with one of the elders as we sing to them or climb right into a lap.”
Ultimately, all the Little Sprouts came to love and look forward to the weekly visits. They talk about the elders throughout the week, revisiting conversations they had and anticipating upcoming activities. The elders have shared lots of positive feedback, according to Whitehead. “One of the residents told me once that several of them mark our visits on their calendars and remind each other when it’s Little Sprout day.”
In the earliest days of her outreach, Whitehead recalls a resident who had made it clear that he had no interest in visiting with the children. “Yet week after week, there he was when we showed up. Within about a month of our visits, he had children on his lap, playing peekaboo with his blanket,” she says.
Even when pandemic-related restrictions put in-person visits on hold, the Little Sprouts adapted with a drive-by parade for the elders. “It was on a beautiful day so most of the residents were able to sit outside on lawn chairs. There were probably 10 or 12 cars, with balloons, decorations, and signs. Each family made cards and posters to leave with the residents. We must have driven around that block five times honking our horns and waving. It was wonderful!”
Whitehead is hopeful about resuming their visits. “We absolutely cannot wait! Our visits offer such a context for learning about compassion and connection. I don’t know when we’ll be able to go back or how our visits might have to change in order to be safe. We won’t give up hope that we can get back there. Meanwhile, we will keep reaching out and sending our love.”
Learn more about Little Sprouts Friendship Garden at littlesproutsfriendshipgarden.com.