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In graduation season like no other, 'adopt-a-senior' group honors York County high-schoolers

While some high school seniors eagerly await news on whether their traditional graduation ceremonies will be canceled, pushed back or swapped for an alternative option, an online community has emerged to celebrate them.

The “Adopt a York Co High School Senior 2020 Community” Facebook group allows parents to post a bio of their seniors, and members can "adopt" them by sending them cards, gifts or other special surprises.

Addressing social distancing guidelines, Lindsay Barshinger and her daughter Addison, 11, present a gift bag to Dallastown High School senior Abrianna Gentile, right, on a porch chair at Gentile's Yoe home Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Addison and her mother Lindsay participated in an adopt-a-graduate program within the school district. Addison, a fifth-grader at Dallastown Intermediate School, and Gentile are both on cheerleading squads. Bill Kalina photo

"It was really cool, in my eyes," said Jacob Amspacher, a senior at Dallastown Area High School, who said he's been taking things day by day and trying to stay positive.

He wasn't expecting to be part of the group and was even more surprised when his mother told him he'd already been "adopted" by two people.

"She told me (it happened) in like 2 seconds, it was that quick," he said.

The group was created by Karen Sawyer, of Springettsbury Township, to pay homage to seniors who might not get the recognition they deserve amid coronavirus cancellations.

“My whole life is about celebrations — I’m in the celebration industry, and I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years,” said Sawyer, who owns York-area party brands such as The Balloon Boutique.

Dallastown High School senior Abrianna Gentile opens items from a gift bag presented to her by Lindsay Barshinger and her daughter Addison, 11, at Gentile's Yoe home Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Addison and her mother Lindsay participated in an adopt-a-graduate program within the school district. Bill Kalina photo

A mother of five boys, she remembers how she felt when her eldest three walked across the stage to get their diplomas.

And as a longtime foster parent to more than 50 children over 17 years, she knows these celebrations are not just a milestone for seniors — but for the entire family.

More:'Seniors, our hearts are breaking for you': York County schools cancel graduations

Sawyer did not expect the group to grow so quickly — 4,990 members have joined and more than 874 seniors were adopted as of Monday afternoon, after she created the group just two weeks ago.

“They’re just coming in droves, it’s unbelievable,” Sawyer said.

Several members are planning weekly gifts up until graduation, including Jody Winters, of North Codorus Township, who adopted three seniors.

“This week will be cards,” Winters said last week, followed by gifts such as snacks, gift cards for gas money or a favorite restaurant and a special surprise on graduation day.

Many who are adopting are parents of seniors and are choosing friends of their children, seniors from their district or those they simply feel connected to.

"I’m a single mother of a teen boy, and she’s a single mother of a teenage son," said Winters of the person who adopted her son Evan, a senior at Spring Grove Area High School.

While that mother felt connected to her family, Winters in turn adopted a senior at Dallastown Area High School who was in the audio visual club, just like her son.

More:VIDEO: Dover Area High School lights up scoreboard for seniors, those on front line in coronavirus pandemic

For others, it was not just about ensuring seniors had a day to remember but a way for parents to heal.

Cristi Hinderer, of Springettsbury Township, lost her son Lance to suicide his senior year and never got to see him graduate, but in some ways, she feels like parents are now going through something similar, and they can go on that journey together, she said.

The same is true for Kristin Newman, of Hanover, who said a parent adopted her son because he volunteered in the fire department, just like the woman's son, who died at 18.

Addison Barshinger, 11, decorated a gift bag for Dallastown High School senior Abrianna Gentile which was presented at Gentile's Yoe home Tuesday, April 28, 2020. Addison and her mother Lindsay participated in an adopt-a-graduate program within the school district. Bill Kalina photo

“I thanked her for honoring my son as well as hers,” Newman said in a Facebook message.

Patricia Mineo Ferrante, of Windsor, was so grateful when her nephew Jacob Crowther, a senior at Dallastown Area High School, was adopted that she adopted four seniors, including Jacob Amspacher.

Crowther lost both of his parents two years apart, in 2015 and 2017, and his 24-year-old brother this January, she said.

“I just felt like I needed to give back,” Ferrante said.

Sawyer’s appears to be the first adopt-a-senior group in York County, but several have sprung up across the nation, including one in Tennessee that Sawyer reached out to with questions and one in Harrisburg.

A Facebook group claiming to be the originator of the adopt-a-senior trend, created by Mary Storey, includes posts from California, Oklahoma and Idaho.

Sawyer’s next goal is to partner with local small businesses that can offer no-touch delivery and goodies for seniors, so the businesses can be supported, too.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” she said.