Families across the county have come together to uplift and honor high school graduates by “adopting” seniors and bringing them gifts.

Victoria Stender, a local ERA TEAM Real Estate agent, created a Facebook group – Faulkner County Adopt a Senior – on April 17 with the hopes of gaining around 100 members to give back to high school graduates across the county after their senior year fell short to due coronavirus shutdowns. As of Tuesday afternoon, the group was more than 1,100 members strong.

The Conway woman said she and the rest of the ERA TEAM Real Estate team “love[s] to be involved with the community.”

It did not surprise her that the real estate team backed her efforts and helped get the initiative moving, she said.

“When I first thought of this idea, agents in my office were the first to adopt seniors,” Stender said. “It was absolutely beautiful.”

The local real estate agent got the idea while scrolling along through social media one day. She said she stumbled across a broad group that was adopting seniors nationwide. It made more sense to localize the initiative and bring joy to local high school seniors, Stender told the Log Cabin Democrat.

As she walked through one of the aisles in Walmart on Tuesday, the Faulkner County Adopt a Senior group administrator held back tears as she described the joy she felt knowing the community and essentially a group of strangers was willing to recognize local seniors.

“It just melts my heart. This is a blessing for everyone,” Stender said. “Could you imagine not being able to be a senior … they lost their prom and can’t walk at graduation.”

The idea behind the initiative is to make each Faulkner County graduate feel special. Group members agree go “adopt” a local teen and then reach out to family members to find out what that graduate’s interests are to personalize their gift baskets.

Gift baskets given to students have included cookies, candy, various treats, soda, art supplies, décor items, blankets, personalized T-shirts, personalized key chains, plush toys and more.

As someone who was once a foster child, Stender said she hopes the initiative will help foster children graduating high school feel loved along with other graduating seniors.

Tayshun Mattison, a graduate of Mayflower High School, is among those “adopted” by a stranger.

After learning he’d been adopted by a stranger, the local teen said: “I guess I’ve been adopted twice.”

Mattison was adopted by Jeannie Mattison six years ago.

Jeannie said she met Tayshun while visiting her daughter in Texas. Jeannie’s daughter fostered many children, but Tayshun stood out to her, and she said she felt a calling to adopt him as her own. And though her biological children are 41 and 46 years old, Jeannie said she was proud to call Tayshun her son as well.

Tayshun stayed active as a Mayflower High School student. He played various sports – football, basketball and track – and will attend Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas, in the fall.

Though he appreciated the gifts he received through the Faulkner County Adopt a Senior initiative, the teen’s mother said he was most excited to meet the woman – Gail Lipsmeyer Dunaway – who adopted him.

Since purchasing gifts for Tayshun and upon meeting him in person, Dunaway said she now considers Tayshun and his family as part of her own family.

Adopting the Mayflower teen felt like a calling to Dunaway, she said.

“I waited [before responding to other adoption requests] and hen I saw his post … something just tugged on me that I was supposed to adopt him,” she said of her decision to adopt Tayshun.

Before adopting another senior, the Conway woman first listed her own child in the group thread. However, Dunaway soon felt the calling to adopt Tayshun and said she now has a new family friend.

Gail’s daughter, Gabrielle Dunaway, is also a 2020 graduating senior. Gabrielle was adopted by Stender.

Seeing the Conwy teen’s reaction when receiving gifts personalized to her interests was a wonderful experience, Stender said.

After COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, Stender said she hopes other group participants will be able to participate in a meet-and-greet to see the faces of those who helped honor others during a chaotic time.

Staff writer Marisa Hicks can be reached at mhicks@thecabin.net.

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