BENSALEM Eighth grader Nicholas Pizzo used to visit his grandmother regularly in a nursing home. He described the facility as a "dull and dreary" place.
"You could tell they weren't happy to be there," Pizzo, 13, of Bensalem, said of the residents.
So when the St. Charles Borromeo School student sat down to write a Christmas card to an elderly woman he'd never met, he could kind of relate to her situation.
"God is watching over you," Pizzo wrote to the woman, living in a facility away from home and family.
Pizzo and his fellow students are part of the Caring Kids Christmas Card Project, a seven-year-old initiative that sends holiday greetings to the elderly in nursing homes.
Students write cards to elders who might feel lonely and depressed during a time synonymous with family celebrations.
Elizabeth Ross, a former schoolteacher from Bensalem, started the project while she was volunteering at St. John Neumann Home in Philadelphia.
"The sense of loneliness and hopelessness just bothered me," said Ross, who gives talks and hosts book clubs at senior residences throughout the region.
"The staff would try to compensate, but [the residents] feel alienated from their families."
Four Catholic schools and four nursing homes are part of the project under which 1,000 cards are to be distributed to residents of facilities in Philadelphia and Bucks County.
About 800 students ages 8 to 13 are writing greetings and drawing festive illustrations on cards purchased by Ross and distributed to schools this month.
Students at St. Ephrem School in Bensalem, Queen of the Universe School in Levittown, Our Lady of Grace School in Penndel, and St. Charles Borromeo are participating in the project.
Ross would like to expand the program to public and private schools and other nursing homes throughout the region.
"It teaches the children to be more aware of other people's needs," Ross said, "and the importance of showing them kindness."
And for the seniors, the old-fashioned charm of the Christmas card works wonders.
"They love looking at those little pictures and crayon-drawn words," said Therese Jones, assistant director of recreational therapy at Immaculate Mary Home in Philadelphia, whose 300 residents receive the cards.
Residents at Wood River Village Retirement Community in Bensalem, St. John Neumann Home, and Sunrise Senior Living community in Abington also receive Christmas cards.
Ava Pizzaro, a eighth grader at St. Charles Borromeo, is scared at the thought of living in a nursing home. "You don't know what's going to happen to you when you're alone," she said.
The 13-year-old spends Christmas with 25 relatives who come over to feast on her mother's turkey dinner. Pizzaro said she couldn't imagine spending the holidays old and alone.
Schoolmate Joe Licolli, 12, said he'd take a stand against aging and infirmity.
"If I were ill and old," he said, "I would try to fight being ill and old."
Alexis Gallagher, 13, took the longer view: "I just hope that when I'm older, I've lived a fun and great life."
For schoolmate Alyssa Friedman, there's an upside to getting old and living with other seniors.
"It would be better than living in a house by myself," said Alyssa, 11, a sixth grader. "I don't know what we'd do for fun. Maybe bingo. But I'd be glad to get a Christmas card from some kids."