Herralink Brings Connection, Joy, to Senior Citizens

Herralink Brings Connection, Joy, to Senior Citizens

Centreville High grad is dedicated to improving their lives.

Isabella Solano is just 19, but she’s owned her own business since October 2023. And her passion for improving the lives of senior citizens demonstrates how much good people can do when they truly care.

The 2022 Centreville High grad founded Herralink, a nonprofit volunteer organization that bridges the gap between generations by connecting high-school students with residents in retirement homes. The students receive community-service hours for school, and the seniors receive something even more valuable – companionship.

“The word ‘Herra’ has a Nordic background and means elder or senior,” explained Solano. “And ‘link’ is because we link elders with future generations to create connections that grow to feel like family. And our students are called Herrahelpers, meaning elder helpers.”

When Solano was 16, she was recruited to work at a tech startup. But when it folded, two years later, she realized she was lonely. “I have an immediate family, but sometimes you need something more,” she said. “A friend at the time was a CNA [certified nursing assistant] at a retirement home and he told me that the seniors barely had any family nearby and never got visitors from the community.

“So that’s how I got interested in them, and they became my family. I felt warm and fuzzy and so happy that they welcomed me into their community. And I feel that warmth and love every time I’m with them – it’s never left me.”

Herralink now partners with four homes for seniors: the Dulles Health & Rehab Center in Herndon, Gainesville Health & Rehab Center in Gainesville, Potomac Falls Health & Rehab Center in Sterling, and Hunter Woods Fellowship House in Reston. The first three are skilled-nursing homes, and the one in Reston is a low-income, independent-living, senior community.

Herralink provides the student visitors and, together, they and the seniors enjoy one-hour activities such as arts and crafts, and light and art therapy, plus social-fitness events, including chair yoga and tai chi. They also do one-on-one meetings between the students and the residents, on weekends, at times convenient to the students. They’ll do things such as playing board games, doing jigsaw puzzles, watching movies or making jewelry together.

“We have almost 400 volunteers, but only eight in the one-on-one program, and I hope that number will increase,” said Solano. “These are the students who really want to connect with the residents and change their lives. To participate in the one-on-one, they go through a personality quiz and an interview with me and are then matched with a senior by me and the retirement home’s director of activities. It’s important that they have something in common, like their personality or a hobby. I match them so they both benefit.” 

“The students create their own schedule of the days and hours they visit,” she continued. “Some come in for a few hours on the weekend and some visit monthly. The main thing is that their visits are consistent. The students and seniors decide how to spend their time together. The goal is to create authentic relationships that come to feel like family.”

Solano said the students often want to stay longer than they initially planned, and that’s fine. “It’s totally up to them,” she said. “It’s the most special part of Herralink and makes all the hard work worth it. Recently, one of the residents thanked me and told me she felt like she had family. It almost made me cry because that’s all I want for them, and it makes me feel proud of what I do.

“Even if they don’t have real family, at least they know they have one person who’ll come in and show them the love they deserve. And there’s so much more I want to do; I’ve only just begun.”

Meanwhile, Solano’s work caught the eye of Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield), who praised her for connecting thousands of students with senior citizens who, otherwise, would be alone. In May, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors recognized volunteers throughout the county during its Volunteer Services Awards ceremony. Recommended by Herrity, Solano was honored as the Springfield District Community Champion. 

In nominating her, he wrote, “Isabella discovered that 60 percent of retirement-home residents nationwide don't have visitors. This motivated her to start her nonprofit to connect an underserved population with high schoolers looking for service hours.” Mentioning Herralink’s four partnerships, Herrity said Solano organized several events for the seniors from short, one-hour gatherings – including craft making, game sessions and karaoke – to one, large, community event each month. 

“These larger events have included a Halloween event with a bouncy house, balloon animals, face painting and a magician, and a Thanksgiving event where she recreated Cox Farms and brought farm animals like a baby cow, baby horse, chickens, goats, and pigs to the retirement home,” wrote Herrity. “She also coordinated with service dogs to ensure bed-bound residents weren’t excluded. She even held a masquerade ball at the Jim Scott community center [in Fairfax], which attracted over 200 people. Thank you, Isabella, for your incredible work.”

The seniors are grateful to Solano, as well. Just ask Alicia Mackin and Erica McCorry, both residents at the Dulles Health & Rehab Center. “Isabella has a wonderful program,” said Mackin. “She’s altruistic, a beautiful woman inside and out. I can’t express the growth in elderly activities because she draws in more people than she knows.” 

And, said McCorry, “I love my volunteers. “They are so sweet, polite and fun. They enjoy a good discussion. We’ve done a lot of movie-watching, and I’ve even taught them to play Scrabble.” 

The residents at the Gainesville location are also pleased. Alex Afari considers Solano “the heart of this place,” and Cynthia “C.C.” Cubbage called her the “kindest, laughiest, smartest person in the world.” 

“Isabella helps people and is a nice person with a positive personality,” said Mike Kelsor. And Connie Munczki is glad to see the volunteers Solano brought to them. “I like the high schoolers,” she said. “They make me feel very happy because they come to visit and stay with us for a little while.”

Volunteers such as sisters Kaelyn and Kelsa Boodal, both rising seniors at Paul VI High, are enjoying their experiences, too. “Herralink is a way for students to connect with senior citizens,” said Kelsa. “Isabella hosts various events that aren’t only fun for the seniors, but also for the volunteers.”

“Herralink and Isabella have provided us with a wonderful opportunity to do activities with seniors that they wouldn’t normally get to do,” added Kaelyn. “Isabella makes volunteering fun and memorable for high-school students like me.”

Solano said many teens and young adults don’t realize they need real, in-person connections with other people. “The love of a community has so much strength and power, and so many people take it for granted,” she explained. “But talking with older adults and learning about them gave me a purpose in this world. I try to enrich their lives and will spend the rest of my life doing that.”

She’d eventually like to study cognitive science with a focus on aging so she could someday design technology to enhance seniors’ lives. For example, it could be applied to help seniors find their room number, or the rooms of their friends, when they can’t remember these numbers on their own. 

Solano would also like the nursing assistants to realize that “if they’d interact more with the seniors as people, they’d both feel that warmth of human connection. The senior population is often an afterthought and ends up being dehumanized. But if you can do something to improve that, why not? Right now, I’m interacting with these people and learning as much as I can, so I can really help change their quality of life.”

And the differences she’s already made for so many seniors are both obvious and welcome. “Isabella has created a remarkable nonprofit that bridges the gap between high-school students and nursing homes,” said AnaLucia Rojas, activities director at Dulles Health & Rehab Center. “Through her organization, Isabella and her team of volunteers bring joy and warmth to our facility, enriching the lives of our residents with laughter, compassion and affection.” 

In fact, Solano has made such a positive impact there that, as of June, she’s that location’s new admissions director. For more information about Herralink, go to www.herralink.com.