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Long Islanders bring hugs and kisses (teddy bears and ChapStick) to nursing home

Seen clockwise from top left, Emma Azzaretto, 13,

Seen clockwise from top left, Emma Azzaretto, 13, Gabriella Manfre, 14, Frankie Manfre, 11 and Anthony Azzaretto, 11, worked together to help create holiday gift bags for the residents of Northwell Health Stern Family Center for Rehabilitation in Manhasset. Credit: Jeanette Azzaretto

Five young Long Islanders wanted to make sure nursing home residents each received a hug and a kiss this holiday season.

Jeanette Azzaretto’s grandmother, Eleanor Zollo, lives in the Northwell Health Stern Family Center for Rehabilitation in Manhasset. Zollo, who is 94 and has dementia, moved into the nursing home early this year, Azzaretto said.

Growing up, Azzaretto lived with her grandmother and their family in Valley Stream. "We’re super close and this is, of course, our first holiday without her," said Azzaretto, of Plainedge.

Many nursing homes on Long Island, including Zollo’s, have visitor restrictions due to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s mandate from September — a facility must get through 14 days without a patient or staffer testing positive for COVID-19.

Since the pandemic began in March, Azzaretto has only seen her grandmother twice in person. During one of the visits, she brought her grandmother a fleece blanket. Zollo spent the whole time touching its soft texture over and over, Azzaretto said.

It gave Azzaretto an idea, which she shared with her friend, Michelle Manfre. Their children have all been friends for about eight years. The mothers decided to do something special and festive not just for Azzaretto’s grandmother, but for all of the long-term residents in her nursing home.

Azzaretto purchased teddy bears from Oriental Trading Company for all 55 residents. "I needed to get something cozy and cute looking," she said. "Even though they’re not kids, everyone likes to be a kid at heart, even if you’re 90."

Meanwhile, Manfre purchased ChapStick in bulk. These items would symbolize hugs and kisses for each resident, Azzaretto said.

"We wanted to make sure everybody had a little love coming in," she said.

The mothers got to work, with the help of some elves — Azzaretto’s children Daniella, 18, Emma, 13, and Anthony, 11, handwrote cards for each gift.

Emma Azzaretto said they wrote messages such as, "Happy holidays" and "Sending you hugs and kisses." The teen added that under normal circumstances, she usually visits her great-grandmother once a month to chat and play board games.

"I felt happy that I was doing this because a lot of people in nursing homes don’t have many people to spend the holidays with," Emma Azzaretto said.

Then Manfre’s children, Gabriella, 14, and Frankie, 11, joined to help put the packages together, all while wearing masks.

"We had a little assembly line going around the table," said Michelle Manfre, of North Massapequa.

Each child had a job, Manfre said, whether it was tearing Scotch tape or cutting ribbons.

Manfre said she was happy to get involved when Jeanette Azzaretto came to her with the idea because she saw it as another way to teach her children the importance of helping others.

"I explained to my son that right now, people in nursing homes don’t get to see their family the way they would have, and a lot of them are alone," she said. "So isn’t it nice to be able to give somebody a smile by surprising them with something totally unexpected, from someone they don't even know?"

After the 50-plus squeezable teddy bears and soothing lip balms were all put together, the group packed them into the trunk of Azzaretto’s car. On Dec. 8, she delivered them to her grandmother’s nursing home after coordinating with social worker Georgia Botoulas.

Botoulas said it’s been a difficult time for the families of her residents, and that the staff has been facilitating a lot more phone calls and FaceTime chats to "do our best to get them through this process."

She said the staff had planned a holiday event for the residents, where they’ll carol and distribute the gifts.

"Any little act of kindness that can bring a smile to these patients’ faces is worth it," she said. "We really appreciate them doing this for the patients and it was so kind of ...[Azzaretto] and her children to do it not just for their grandma, but everybody else that’s here."

Both Azzaretto and Manfre are happy their children helped bring their holiday vision to life. And Azzaretto is hoping to be able to visit her grandmother soon.

"Whether it’s a window visit or if we’re lucky enough to be in person," she said. "I’ll have to ask her how her teddy bear is."

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