Some people give gifts to brighten another's day. Others make phone calls. For the Smile on Seniors volunteers of Essex County, N.J., a friendly visit does the trick.

The Smile on Seniors program, launched in May 2007 by the Lubavitch Outreach Center in Essex County intends to bring joy and provide company to Jewish senior citizens in New Jersey's MetroWest community.

In the program, volunteers of all ages are paired with Jewish seniors residing in assisted-living facilities, nursing homes and hospitals in order to facilitate an ongoing relationship.

Volunteers commit to visiting their "Bubby Buddies" and "Zaidy Buddies" on a consistent basis to make this be so.

"The SOS program has been a major success," said Rabbi Boruch Klar, executive director of the Lubavitch Outreach Center, using the program's acronym. "It has literally transformed the lives of seniors in more isolated situations, by providing [them with] ongoing emotional, social and spiritual support."

The program's activities are not limited to mere visits, however. The organization also supplies volunteers with materials, thoughts, songs and gifts for the celebration of Jewish holidays. In addition, every volunteer is provided with a rose to give to a senior during each visit, as well as two red clown noses, one for the volunteer and one for the senior.

Altie Kasowitz, program co-director and volunteer coordinator, experiences first-hand the program's effects on both the seniors and volunteers.

"The reward that comes with people sharing deep and meaningful feelings, or simply holding a hand or lending an ear in a lonely moment [is remarkable]," she said. "These are the special moments in life that enrich both the volunteer and the senior."

Though the program is still in its infancy, volunteers and seniors found it easy to develop deep connections. West Orange resident Julie Levine, the first volunteer to sign up for SOS, visits her senior multiple times each week at Brighton Garden of West Orange, an assisted living community. Levine was even able to celebrate the 98th birthday of her "Bubby Buddy," Jean Griff, this past August.

A young volunteer brings a smile to a senior citizen.
A young volunteer brings a smile to a senior citizen.
"It's so worthwhile and important if you can bring a little kindness into someone else's life," said Levine. "The rewards are endless.

"Judaism is not just a religion but a way of life," she continued. Griff "tells me how my visits are the highlight of her week. It's amazing how giving just a half hour here and there can change someone's life."

The SOS volunteers come from various communities and lifestyles. For example, 13-year-old Zach Kessel from West Orange volunteers with his mother, Sharon Kessel weekly. The pair visits their "Bubby Buddy," Riva Goldberg, at Brighton Gardens every Shabbat.

"She always smiles when I come, kisses my hand and is very happy to see me. It's a great feeling you get," said Zach Kessel.

Janet Stefano, Activities and Volunteer Coordinator at Brighton Gardens, praised the results of the SOS program.

"Smile on Seniors has been a very positive experience," she said. "The volunteers are wonderful, kind and really want to make a difference. It's really the one-on-one attention that makes a connection that the residents might not cultivate in a group setting."

Even those with family and friends close by seem to benefit from an extra visit each week, according to SOS program co-creator Rabbi Mendy Kasowitz. He believes in the importance of a visit, even from a stranger, no matter the distance of family.

"Today our parents are living longer, more productive lives," he said. "If we're in the neighborhood, we visit as often as we can. Still, it would be wonderful to know that someone else can care in a most loving way."