Life changed dramatically for every Wilton Public School student on March 13, 2020, when the district canceled in-person classes “until further notice,” before eventually moving entirely to online learning through the end of the year. But for members of Wilton‘s Class of 2020, this news meant a tough, disappointing adjustment to what was supposed to be a year of celebration and milestones.

“It’s been heartbreaking watching my senior who was so excited to walk the halls as the King of the castle and to have senior skip day and to have senior prom and internships all taken away. And as a parent, there was nothing I could do to make it better, absolutely nothing,” said Wilton mom Leigh Heffernan.

But together with her best friend Sarah Simmons, also the mother of a graduating WHS senior, Heffernan did find a way to give seniors the celebration they deserved.

Last Monday night, the two women created a Facebook group called “Adopt a Wilton Class of 2020 Senior – Life Makes You Pivot” to give each senior the spotlight they deserve by enlisting the community’s help. Heffernan said she intentionally used the word “pivot” in the group’s title as a reference to the popular TV show “Friends,” as well as to encapsulate how resilient the seniors have had to be with all the changes thrown in their path this year.

Less than 24 hours after the group debuted, over 200 members had joined, Heffernan said. By Sunday, not even a week after it was formed, the group has more than 550 members.

“So much was taken away because of the virus and because of quarantine,” Simmons said. “I think [this Facebook group] has taken off because it’s a way to celebrate our graduates and make them feel loved and important and have a community rally around them.”

In the group, Class of 2020 parents are invited to post a picture of their senior with a brief description of his or her plans for next year. People in the community are invited to “adopt” these seniors with only two simple rules in mind–to be kind and inclusive.

After adopting a graduate, the adopter volunteers to drop off at most five gifts (one per week or simply one larger gift) starting this week to make the adopted senior feel special and celebrated. Adoptions will last until June 13–the day that was scheduled to be Wilton High School’s graduation.

Anyone can adopt a senior, and the goal of the group is to have every senior adopted. Seniors can be adopted more than once, and adopters can adopt as many seniors as they wish.

Heffernan said that the community response has been unprecedentedly enthusiastic, with students typically being adopted within hours of a post. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Heffernan said. “It’s bringing everybody together in a way that we never imagined, and it’s kind of neat.”

In fact, Heffernan wrote that “as word about the group spread, members started to pull in extended family, friends, teachers, Wilton alumni, neighbors, and college alums in an effort to support the seniors.” She added that “the goal of the initiative is simple–to support and teach that even though life can change unexpectedly, they are never alone, and there are always positive things in the world.”

Students are not admitted into the Facebook group, in an effort to keep the adoption a surprise; however, Simmons said it’s up to parents and adopters to decide if they’d like to keep the adoption a secret or anonymous. Regardless, she said the joy on the page is palpable.

“We’re letting each parent decide how they want to play it out with their graduate. But I think the kids are excited, the parents are excited, and I know when I go on the site, I can just feel the happy,” she said. “It’s been wonderful.”

When it comes to gift-giving and the number of adoptions, Heffernan and Simmons said they are striving to make the group intentionally inclusive. In particular, they are working hard to make sure every student who wants to be adopted finds an adoptee, and to make sure gift-giving does not become a popularity contest. They advise people to refrain from posting excessively on social media about their gifts, and to not to overthink gifts. Gifts can be very simple, the duo said, with gift cards, college gear, notes, or balloons as some great examples. Adopters can reach out to parents to find out more about the student and center gifts around those details.

“We’ve always said that whatever people feel comfortable doing, whether it’s a nice note saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got this,’ or whether it’s something a little bit more [is perfect],” Heffernan said. “We want people to do what they feel comfortable with. And the goal really is to just make the seniors know that people are thinking about them.”

Furthermore, the group is having a positive effect on business in the community, with many adopters choosing to shop local. Jennifer Angerame, owner of Southern Yankee, said she has received many orders from adopters for their seniors, and she has even adopted some seniors herself.

“We are all having to get creative in these times, and what a better way for our town to rally around these kids and families?” she wrote about the group. She added that she “immediately got texts/[Facebook] chats/[Instagram] messages from people in town about gifts for their ‘kids,’” and has been working on some fun creative ideas to make the seniors feel even more special.

Angerame and other retailers are also working with adopters to try and make gift orders unique or keep track of what’s been purchased, in the hopes of avoiding duplicate gifts.

Even Wilton residents without children who are seniors are enthusiastic about the group as well. Patty Tomasetti, mother of a 2018 Wilton High School graduate, said that when she heard about this initiative, she instantly “jumped on board.” She wrote in an email to GOOD Morning Wilton that she sees participating in the effort as an opportunity to reconnect with the town, and she hopes it can help seniors realize how special Wilton is before they leave for college.

“If non-senior families could participate in celebrating them and make them feel supported and surrounded by a virtual hug and feel loved, that maybe they will learn that living in this ‘small town’ wasn’t so bad after all,” Tomasetti wrote. “That this community even with its flaws was pretty amazing, inspiring, and a great place to grow up.”

Simmons and Heffernan hope that fellow Wilton residents will get involved in the initiative–both to celebrate a deserving group of kids and come together for a common good.

“I hope the seniors can feel that the town has fully embraced them and understand that … even though they’re missing out on those life events, there’s still good things that can happen and there’s still memories to be made,” Simmons said. “And that there can still be joy and happiness in a hard time.”