TORONTO -- A group of high school students has created a virtual pen pal program to help seniors across the Greater Toronto Area develop meaningful connections amid the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the obstacles created by social isolation.

The program, called Pandemic Pals or Pan Pals for short, has students connect with seniors in long-term care homes via phone and Zoom calls in an effort to combat loneliness brought on by lockdowns in the province.

“We thought about seniors in long-term care homes who are missing out on this time with their children, their grandchildren their great grandchildren, along with this all encompassing fear of the unknown virus,” student Pan Pal Sam Shulman said in an interview with CTV News.

“So we wanted to bring joy to seniors during these trying times,” he added.

The students virtually connect with the seniors once or twice a week to share stories, recite poetry, play music and even share artwork to brighten the lives of the residents cooped up inside the care facilities.

“They would talk to us and tell us that we were the first person to talk to you that was not part of their senior home in weeks, sometimes even months,” said Pan Pal volunteer Apostolos Zezos.

The Pan Pals program began during Ontario’s lockdown last spring. The project involves students from the Upper Canada College, Bishop Strachan School, Havergal and Bayview Glen.

Last summer, the team had a number of students from various grades create art and music. They then took their work to care homes for occasions such as Father’s Day and Canada Day.

Baycrest Health Sciences, a research and teaching hospital for the elderly that is affiliated with the University of Toronto, decided to incorporate Pan Pals into its seniors’ support program this past fall.

Since September 2020, about 16 volunteers continue to participate in Pan Pals. Overall, close to 150 students have taken part in the program.

Long-term care resident Irena Caranica told CTV News that being in lockdown wasn’t so bad thanks to her Pan Pal Jamie Selfe.

“Like I was talking to a very good friend from my youth. That's how nice it was. I was waiting every week for him to call me so I can talk to him,” Caranica said.

“It's a great program, it's great for old people,”she added.

Selfe said he and Caranica talk about a wide variety of topics including world issues and global politics.

“That’s a lot of what I'm studying in school and yeah, she gives a really good perspective on what's going on in the world,” he explained.

Selfe says the overall goal of the program is to help take seniors’ minds off the loneliness they may be feeling because of the pandemic.

After the pandemic is over, Selfe said the group plans to continue with phone and Zoom calls, as well as visit their Pan Pals in person.

“Hopefully, you know, have a more personal touch, be able to go in person, do actual activities then,” Selfe said.

The student volunteers say interest in the program is growing, and they hope to expand the project across Canada in the future.

Despite the age difference, Shulman said the students and seniors actually have a lot in common.

“Seniors are obviously much older than we are, but we're all humans, and we're all similar and it's another person to talk to you, it's another person to share how our day was… and that relationship kind of transcends age,” Shulman explained.

Zezos said the age difference means the students and seniors have also been able to learn a lot from one another.

“We are able to … share experiences and learn about things that happened in the past [and] we are able to share things that are happening now that they might not know,” Zezos said.

While the Pan Pals only talk with each other a few times a week, student Kate Fitzpatrick said she’s noticed that the calls have really made a difference in the seniors’ mental health.

“I think for the seniors ... knowing that you're not alone in your struggle is enough to get you through and enough to want to keep moving forward,” Fitzpatrick said.

However, the project isn’t one sided. Fitzpatrick said Pan Pals has also been beneficial for the students.

“When you're living through an experience such as a pandemic, which is so incredibly isolating, having anyone to talk to is so beneficial,” she explained.

Another student with the program, Justin Lee, who had been working on reducing senior loneliness since Grade 8, said senior loneliness in long-term care homes has always been a problem. However, he says the pandemic has brought new attention to the issue.

“Senior loneliness isn't something that became real because of a pandemic, it was something that exists before. It just got amplified because of the pandemic. So I think this idea of connection, interaction and building bonds definitely should continue after the pandemic,” Lee said.

“If I can bring light to someone's day, I really want to take that opportunity,” he added.