First graders performed for a packed auditorium full of senior citizens from the community during the 35th Annual Big Hearts Little Hands event at Willard Elementary School. | Amaris E. Rodriguez

Third-graders at Willard Elementary held the school doors open as senior citizens from River Forest and surrounding communities arrived for a day full of smiles, performances, and a tea party during the 35th Annual Big Hearts Little Hands event at 1250 Ashland Ave. 

The PTO-sponsored event has been held at River Forest’s Willard for the last 35 years, growing to become one of the community’s favorites, helping children learn the importance and value of embracing senior citizens.

Rachel Dardis, PTO member and mom to a current first grader at Willard, said this year’s event was the first one in person since the COVID-19 pandemic, which they tried to navigate by filming performances and sending goodie bags to senior centers. 

Seniors enjoyed the tea party at Willard Elementary School as part of the Big Hearts Little Hands event. | Amaris E. Rodriguez

Being back in person made this year’s event extra special, especially since many seniors were cut off from the community during the height of the pandemic for health concerns. 

While Dardis said the event has evolved to include many grandparents, they extend invitations to senior homes in the area, with seniors from Oak Park Arms, Brookdale Senior Living and The Sheridan attending this year. 

“The interaction is probably my favorite part, every time they [students] surprise you,” Dardis said. “They are just on it and engaged and happy and excited to welcome them and it is natural for them. It’s fun to watch.” 

This year, the community gathered to celebrate the founder of the event in 1988, Madonna Weldon, who passed away in 2008 after fighting cancer. In attendance was her husband Bill Weldon, who said the event is an amazing way to continue to honor her legacy and her love for community.

“She wanted to connect the kids at Willard with the older generation, with the grandparent type generation, because there is so much to learn and so much to give,” said Bill Weldon. “Madonna’s real strength was in generating kindness and there is such kindness in our older generation and such joy and gentleness with the kids that is encouraged and embraced here at the Willard community, that is what she was after.”

Third grader Evie Hall helped pass out refreshments to senior citizens during the tea party portion of the Big Hearts Little Hands event. | Amaris E. Rodriguez

Madonna’s memory was also honored through the display of an engraved silver tea service set displayed at the treats table during teatime, which followed the presentation by the first and fourth grade students. 

First graders treated the packed auditorium to a performance of songs from various parts of the world including “Ev’rybody’s Welcome,” a folk song from Tennessee, and “This Little Light of Mine,” an African American spiritual.

Harriet Roberts, a 40-year resident of Oak Park, and her husband were among the grandparents invited to the event. 

“Our grandson Miles is in the first grade and just last summer he and his whole family moved back so now we can participate in these wonderful events,” Roberts said, adding her favorite part was the diversity in the performances and getting to see all the kids clap along. 

To make this event a whole school effort, Principal Diane Wood said that students touched every part of the event, from helping with decorations to serving as greeters so that even the behind-the-scenes details gave students an opportunity to embrace the senior community. 

First and fourth graders performed for attendees while pre-K and kindergarteners made colorful decorations displayed during the performances. When it came to teatime, third grade students, assisted by parent volunteers, helped serve and pass out favors and flowers while seniors enjoyed baked foods made by parent volunteers and local bakeries, including Oak Park favorites Spilt Milk and the Daly Bagel. 

Students enjoyed being able to interact with members of the community and had also received a few tips from teachers on how to engage with the senior community. 

Third grader Frankie Battaglia helped pass out goodie bags to senior citizens who attended this year’s Big Hearts Little Hands event. | Amaris E. Rodriguez

Frankie Battaglia, a third-grade student, handed out goodie bags to the seniors and said her favorite part of the event was that she got the chance to be a “little worker,” and she enjoyed putting a big smile on seniors faces. 

“We are all smiling and giving eye contact when people come up,” Battaglia said. “[It’s important] so we can be nice to the seniors and show respect.” 

One of the original goals of the event was to harvest a sense of inclusion for the senior community that spread beyond grandparents, in hopes of involving those who might not often be invited to participate in school events.

“What has been lovely this year in particular is the neighbors that showed up,” Wood said. “Some of them stopped to tell me specifically ‘oh we are the oldest couple on our block and a student invited us,’ or ‘we live next door to a student, and they invited us,’ so it’s nice that we are able to foster that.”

While the idea might have begun with the late Madonna Weldon, her husband praises the community for seeing it to what it is today. 

“The Willard community, the educators, the staff, the PTO, the idea lives beyond just a single person, and it has been embraced by all the community here and they have made it part of the Willard family,” Bill Weldon said. 

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