Lauren Swartsell and her twin sister Leslie laced up their Converse sneakers last Thursday so they could race out to celebrate Thanksgiving with their friends. Lauren’s favorite color is purple, and her twin sister Leslie’s favorite color is pink, but their high-tops are red and blue.
The shoes made an impact at the Caring Hearts Thanksgiving celebration where their friends joined them to start the holiday season — a time of gratitude and spending special moments with the people we love.
Caring Hearts, a group of adults with disabilities, got a head start on Thanksgiving last Thursday when they shared a traditional turkey meal at the Eagles Lodge. The overhead sky was gray with haze and the air was cool, but inside the building, conversation was warm and the energy high. Loose sweatshirts hung over the back of chairs. People leaned in close to hear each other over the music and lively banter.
That morning, Lauren and Leslie, each with a matching sunflower tattoo on their forearm and braids in their auburn hair, were looking forward to specific Thanksgiving foods — as we all are. For the sisters, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and sweet potatoes are the best Thanksgiving delicacies.
After the meal, Lauren and Leslie and the other Caring Hearts friends received cut-up construction paper and other craft supplies to make a craft turkey at home, each feather an opportunity to write down what they are grateful for.
This year, a handful of orange and green feathers might not be enough. There’s so much happiness to share.
Lauren, who wore a purple ribbon in her hair, is thankful for her friends, family and boyfriend, who lives in Las Cruces. They enjoy competing in the Special Olympics.
“And we both like Stitch,” said her sister Leslie, pointing to her T-shirt and counting items she loves. Leslie said she wears her Stitch shirt to Domino’s Pizza where she’s worked for six years, and Lauren wears her shirt to Sonic where she’s worked for four years.
Leslie and Lauren are grateful for each other — but like any close sisters, they sometimes have hard feelings. Fortunately, they know how to calm down when strong emotions surface. “I take a deep breath and listen to country music,” Leslie said, spinning the blue and pink watch on her arm.
Nearby, Ticey Kennard, 21, finished sipping a grape Shasta drink. Her mother Tami sat across from her. While Ticey is quiet, “she knows every Taylor Swift song there is,” Tami said, softly holding Ticey’s fingers. “She can sing.”
Ticey’s hairstyle and bangs could give Swift a run for her money, the gently curled strands falling just below her brow. This Thanksgiving, Ticey is looking forward to eating turkey with her family and singing her favorite Taylor Swift song, “Shake It Off.”
Near the front of the room, friends Luis, Madi and Mary Jean shared what they feel grateful for. Madi, wearing red shoes with jeans and a lavender-striped flannel shirt, is grateful for her mother, who attended the Caring Hearts luncheon with her, and her father and stepmother.
Luis is grateful for hockey, volleyball, football, golf and softball. “I’m nice to her all the time,” he said, putting his arm around Madi, who leaned in. The pair have been dating for seven years, and it’s clear by their affection they are grateful for one another. “I like love songs too,” said Luis, who wore a black ball cap and a gray shirt with a Chevrolet logo.
Mary Jean Owen, one of their closest friends, is moving soon to be with her sister and niece. “I’m going to miss my friends,” she said, standing close to Madi. Mary Jean’s move to another town is bittersweet: her brother-in-law is building a fence for her dog and rabbit, but goodbyes are hard.
In another corner of the room, David Barwick shared he is grateful for his mother, father and job. He’s worked at McDonald’s since 2004. “And my house,” he said. “That’s my fourth thing.” Barwick, 56, who has autism, has lived independently in his house for 32 years.
Junior Suver, who takes pride in representing the all-time greatest football team, the Denver Broncos, is thankful for his family, friends and “awesome music.” Junior’s favorite song right now is “Therapy Session” by American rapper NF. “I can relate to him so much,” he said.
And, of course, Junior is even grateful for the up and down year the Broncos are having. “Russell Wilson threw more touchdowns this season than all of last season,” Junior said, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. “They’re fighting for a wildcard spot in the playoffs, and this is the first time in years I could say that.”
At the end of their time together, Junior gave his friends a hug and a high five and tucked the Thanksgiving turkey craft under his arm to complete later with Sara, his caretaker. The other Caring Hearts members waved goodbye and wished each other a happy Thanksgiving.
Every year, we’re reminded the secret to a happy life is pretty simple: Be grateful. Spend time with people you love. The Caring Hearts community leads the way for all of us.