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A thank-you video warmed my 10th grade English teacher’s heart. And mine, too.

I’ve wanted to thank Mrs. Cowen for 30 years. A Jersey Shore startup helped make it happen.

Giving the gift of gratitude. Columnist Elizabeth Wellington employs a company to do just that and looks at the act of sending hugs as a gift this Christmas. Illustration by Cynthia Greer
Giving the gift of gratitude. Columnist Elizabeth Wellington employs a company to do just that and looks at the act of sending hugs as a gift this Christmas. Illustration by Cynthia GreerRead moreCynthia Greer

My 10th grade English teacher suggested I apply to a high school journalism workshop. I wanted to do it. But like most 15-year-olds, I dillydallied and two days before the application was due, I handed Mrs. Cowen a haphazardly filled-in application and shoddy essay.

Ilsa Cowen — a mild-mannered woman known for her granny-style salt and pepper bun — scowled. I think she growled, too.

After she lectured me on the importance of respecting deadlines, she helped me get my essay and application in tip-top shape and in on time, jump-starting my journalism career. I’ve thought of Mrs. Cowen often during the last 30-plus years and have wanted to thank her. But really, what was the chance of that happening?

Then I learned about 7 Thank Yous, a start-up founded by Jersey Shore friends Andy Levine and Paul Kaplan. The team combs through social media and taps into several national databases to help clients reconnect with people who’ve impacted their lives but whom they’ve never had a chance to properly thank.

The 7 Thank Yous team then helps its clients make three- to five-minute gratitude videos and ships them to the unsuspecting recipients’ homes. The basic package includes a thank-you note with a video link. It’s $25. In the second-tier package, for $45, the video is jazzed up with music and photos. In the premium 7 Thank Yous experience, the video is delivered on a jump drive with a thank-you note packaged in a fancy wooden box for $75.

In a normal year, a 7 Thank Yous video is a thoughtful gift. But during our second pandemic holiday season , it’s an especially wonderful gesture. We’ve all lost so much. Yet we are still here because of the people who’ve pushed us to keep on keepin’ on. Why not thank them while we still have the chance?

“I was on my daily run last January when my old guitar teacher came to mind,” Levine, chairman of the New York-based marketing firm DCI, said about Harry Egnor. Levine also hosts Second Act Stories, a podcast about people with exciting second careers. “Mr. Egnor introduced me to the love of music and helped me build my confidence. I wanted to look him up. After all, I was turning 60, so if not now, then when?”

Levine found his teacher. And a few days later his Ocean Grove neighbor, Kaplan, a former video producer at ESPN, suggested Levine make a video to accompany his note. Levine filmed a video on his iPhone. Kaplan edited it, and then Levine mailed it. “I would have emailed it to him, but I didn’t have his address, Levine said.

Egnor was touched. “It was kind of emotional,” said Egnor, 77, retired and still rocking. “It made me feel great that I was able to influence Andy in such a positive way. And after 40 years, he remembered and reached out to me … That’s a pretty special thing.”

“It turned out to be one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever given anyone,” said Levine, who chose the name 7 Thank Yous because, he said, he believes each of us has at least seven people in their lives who have made a difference in their lives.

Levine’s second act was born.

Selling gratitude?

The idea that expressing gratitude enriches our lives and others’ is a centuries-old tenent of religious faith. Gratitude letters are not new, either. University of Pennsylvania professor and positive psychology founder Martin Seligman is one of the first researchers to find that thanking people in writing not only brightens the recipient’s day, it makes us feel good, too. The more we do it, the better we feel.

“Gratitude keeps us connected,” said Suzann Pileggi Pawelski, a well-being consultant and author of Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. “We know that people who practice gratitude have better, healthier relationships, experience an increase in happiness and a decrease in depression, and those effects are lasting.”

Gratitude has gotten a Hollywood boost in the last decade, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, Brené Brown, and Deepak Chopra. It comes with a bevy of gratitude paraphernalia including journals, pens, calendars, gift cards, and graphic T-shirts.

Still I wonder: Is it right to cash in on gratitude? Saying thank-you shouldn’t cost us, right?

The sentiment is free, said Vera Ludwig, a researcher in the University of Pennsylvania’s neuroscience department. But sometimes we need help to make it happen, because gratitude doesn’t come naturally to us all the time, especially since we live in a society that focuses on what we don’t have rather than what we do. And that help is considered a service.

“What follows from that philosophy is that people who provide services that foster goodness shouldn’t be paid,” Ludwig said. “Imagine a society where it’s OK for people to earn money by giving us a gift that encourages us to be our best selves. This is where our money should go.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

Heartfelt thank-yous

Kaplan and Levine soft-launched 7 Thank Yous in the spring with a target audience of folks 40 and over. These older millennials, Gen X-ers, and young Boomers, Levine said, would get the most value from 7 Thank Yous because they have the benefit of perspective. For them, 20, 30, and in some cases even 40 years have passed. “They really understand how these people directed the course of their lives,” Levine said.

Kyle Merker connected with his former boss, chef and food critic Arno Schmidt, through 7 Thank Yous in the fall. In the 1980s, Schmidt was the food and beverage director at The Plaza Hotel and had promoted Merker from assistant cost controller, to cost controller, to beverage manager — a big job for a 21-year-old who hadn’t gone to college.

“He really awakened something in me,” said Merker, who is now 60 and lives in Old City. “Mr. Schmidt wanted to hear my opinions. He didn’t coddle me. He threw me in the water and let me swim.” Merker went on to NYU, received an accounting degree and became an accounting executive. Merker is now retired and is acting in Lifetime movies and commercials. He met Schmidt in personafter Thanksgiving and said he had an amazing experience.

My 7 Thank Yous experience was amazing, too.

I recorded three videos: one for my college mentor, one for an editor I had early in my journalism career, and a third for Mrs. Cowen.

Levine reconnected me with all three.

I’m still playing phone tag with my college mentor whose message to me was twofold: Don’t be afraid to take chances. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.

I received an email from the editor, Ned Barnett, who supervised me when I interned for the Raleigh News & Observer more than 20 years ago. Barnett taught me the beauty of language and advocated for the paper to hire me straight out of college. “I’m grateful for the years I spent as an editor,” wrote Barnett, who grew up in Merion. “The stories disappear after a day or two, but what an editor is able to teach and inspire endures in the work of others.”

This is true.

I connected with Mrs. Cowen on a gray Saturday afternoon in early November. She called me after Levine confirmed that she had received the video.

“When I put the flash drive in the computer, your smiling face popped up immediately,” Mrs. Cowen gushed. “It was such a surprise. You really haven’t changed that much.”

Wow, I can’t believe she remembered me.

Mrs. Cowen, who is now in her late 70s, is retired from Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, Queens. We talked about how high school journalism has changed. We reminisced about the children’s book writing elective she taught and I took — twice. We hope to get together for coffee soon. The whole experience left feeling warm and fuzzy.

“I was really touched, Elizabeth,” she said before hanging up. “It means so much to me that you remember after all of these years. I think all teachers wonder and worry about the impact we have on our students’ lives. So this, this makes me so happy.”

That makes two of us.