University of San Diego students and Pacific Beach seniors connect through wellness calls

Eileen Ward, one of the wellness call participants
Eileen Ward, who has regular conversations with Teodora Dillard, a University of San Diego graduate student in counseling, poses with a Christmas stocking she helped stuff at a socially distanced event at St. Brigid Parish.
(Courtesy of St. Brigid Parish)

From college seniors to senior citizens, COVID-19 disrupted the life of nearly every San Diegan.

In late March, in-person internships and practicums for graduate students at University of San Diego were shut down. This training — necessary to fulfill their degree requirements — threatened the graduation of some students.

Wendell Callahan, a USD professor and program director for the counseling masters program, began to brainstorm an alternative way for these students to fulfill their contact hour requirements.

Callahan, who lives in Pacific Beach, is a longtime member of St. Brigid Parish and part of its mental health ministry. His involvement with the church sparked an idea to virtually connect church seniors with counseling students, who could offer guidance and support during the stay-at-home orders.

So Callahan reached out to his fellow parishioner Gerry Greer, a Pacific Beach resident who heads the home ministry for seniors at the Catholic church on Cass Street. Greer, 81, is heavily involved with St. Brigid Parish and has implemented various programs and initiatives to help the seniors, from sending birthday cards to delivering meals.

Once COVID-19 hit, the need to support seniors — a vulnerable population to the coronavirus — only magnified. Greer had to shut down his in-person ministry for safety reasons, and was looking for new ways to keep in contact and support the seniors.

Callahan and Greer teamed up to create a program for the graduate students to call seniors on a weekly basis. Greer provided names and numbers of approximately 50 individuals, who were then split up among the four students.

They developed a script for the students to read to the seniors each week, which included reminders of COVID-19 safety requirements and other updates. However, these wellness calls quickly developed into something bigger than the students simply relaying information to the seniors.

“The students were getting so much back from these conversations — there were some real special connections,” Greer said.

“It went beyond the idea of giving them advice — the seniors were able to give (the students) feedback and share some of their experiences,” he continued. “So it just developed into a beautiful connection where it was a win-win situation for the seniors and the students.”

In August 2020, all four student participants walked away from USD with a diploma — along with the experience of forming special, albeit virtual, connections with some of the seniors. One student even extended her involvement past graduation and still keeps in contact with few of the seniors on her call list.

“I would describe (the program) as a very real experience — it’s definitely not something you do on Facebook or on Instagram, there’s a more stronger human element to this,” Callahan said.

By fall 2020, the USD graduate program had adapted to COVID-19 restrictions and figured out how to fulfill the internship requirements, either online or in person. However, that wasn’t the end of Callahan and Greer’s program. The wellness calls continued — only this time around, it was on a volunteer basis.

Teodora Dillard, a graduate student in counseling at University of San Diego, has regular chats with senior Eileen Ward.
Teodora Dillard, a 25-year-old graduate student in the University of San Diego counseling program, has regular chats with senior Eileen Ward on everything from typical life updates and COVID-19 to intellectual topics.

One of those volunteers is Teodora Dillard, a 25-year-old graduate student in the counseling program. Dillard, who received her undergraduate degree in social work from University of Central Florida, is pursuing a degree working with children but previously worked with elderly and older adults.

“I wanted to do that again since I’m now pursuing a degree in working with children — I wanted to get back to working with people who are older than 6 years old,” she said, laughing.

She began the volunteer program in October 2020 and currently talks to eight people. Though Dillard admits taking on the call list was a little nerve-wracking at first, she said it has gotten easier and become a part of her routine. The length of each call varies depending on the person; she calls one couple biweekly for a quick five minute check in, but chats with others every week for up to an hour.

Eileen Ward is one of the talkers. Ward, 81, is a retired humanities professor from New York who now resides a block away from St. Brigid Parish. She lived in Pacific Beach for more than two decades with Tom, her husband of 55 years, until his passing in September 2019.

Ward’s two sons and five grandchildren, who live in the Midwest, visited her in San Diego multiple times a year. Unfortunately, she has not been able to see them in person since December 2019 due to the coronavirus. During quarantine, she has also been dealing with a chronic illness as well as issues with mold in her apartment.

Dillard and Ward’s conversations start off with typical life updates and COVID-19 news, but then usually delve into intellectual or humanitarian topics. Ward also shares stories with Dillard about her life, including her experiences in academia and traveling, and offers Dillard career advice.

“She’s a very affable, bright and energetic young woman,” Ward said of Dillard, who she calls T.

“I honestly can’t imagine now not calling her (after graduation) … now that we’ve really gotten to know each other in this way,” Dillard said.

In addition to students continuing to call the seniors past graduation, the program may even expand beyond USD and St. Brigid Parish. Recently, Callahan was contacted by a representative from the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in La Jolla interested in the wellness calls.

USD and the VA are currently in discussions about how to replicate the program for those seniors in a similar situation.