Creating a Legacy of Love
Billings Family adopts assisted living facility as “extra” grandparents
As Julie Mavencamp knocks gently on Jim Bertrand’s door, she calls out, “Hi, Jim, we’re here to see you!” As the 95-year-old makes his way to greet the Mavencamp family, Julie’s sons, Kayden, 9, and Peyton, 7, are already jumping up and down, barely able to wait for the door to open. It doesn’t take long for the boys to pile on Jim’s couch as they come in for a visit. It’s clear they feel right at home.
“I think the good Lord sent a few angels down from heaven and sent them here,” Jim says.“I have never met anyone as sweet as they are.”
Jim has suffered his share of loss recently. His wife, Mary Jean, passed away a year and a half ago. In September of this year, he lost his 65-year-old son, Mike.
“After my wife’s funeral, of course I was sitting in my room all by myself. I was grieving. Julie came in with her big smile and she sat there and visited with me … excuse me, the tears just kind of come. Those little boys came in and hugged me too,” Jim says, smiling through the tears. “Those hugs are worth more than medicine to me.”
When Julie got word that Jim’s son passed away this fall, she was, again, right there with a coffee in hand to help soothe the loss.
“You get pretty lonely up here,” Jim says. “I was married to my wife for 69 years and we were together 24/7 until she passed away. They manage to cheer me up whenever they show up.”
Pam Schlepp, the Springs at Grand Park’s director of Life Enrichment, says this relationship is just one way Julie and her family have poured love into this tight-knit assisted living community.
“They are especially tender with those residents who don’t have any family,” Schlepp says. “We have very few but they just really take them under their wings.”
Julie and her family started coming for visits about four years ago to see her grandmother, Juanita Swanson. They’d visit almost daily. When Juanita died in December of 2018, they kept coming to visit the friends they met along the way.
“Being around all of these people, they have filled a void in my life since my grandparents passed away,” Julie says. “Every person is so loving and accepting of our family here. Every person, no questions asked, they just love us.”
In the Mavencamp family, there are no strangers. It’s just how Julie was raised. “My grandfather was an old Montana cowboy,” she says. “To him, nothing was more important than family and you took care of your elders.”
On a Monday afternoon in October, the Springs at Grand Park’s second floor was hopping. The boys were running back and forth between the residents and a table stacked with icecream and all the fixings — strawberry sauce, caramel, hot fudge, sprinkles — you name it. After taking orders, the boys would dish up the goodies in a waffle cone bowl to make the perfect sundae. Nearly every resident was there.
“How are you Arlene?” Julie says. “I am so glad you came down! I’ve got a chair for you right over here.”
At 97, it’s not easy for Arlene to get around, but this was one ice cream social she did not want to miss.
“She just really wanted to be here,” Pam says as she looks on with a smile.
In the back corner, there’s another resident who wouldn’t miss this social event for the world. Just a few hours out of oral surgery, Marie McCabe took her seat. She has a special place in her heart for the Mavencamps. When her husband of 67 years, Jesse, died eight months ago, she barely left her apartment. That’s when Julie and her family came knocking.
“She even quit playing bingo, which was her big event,” Pam says. “Julie came and spent a few hours with her. She went and got the boys from school and the boys picked out a butterfly necklace for her so that she could fly again.”
“I showed the necklace to my daughter-in-law today and we both cried. It has meant so much to me,” Marie says. “If I am not feeling like I should, I just rush in my bedroom and get that necklace and hold on to it.” When she holds it, she says a “velvety peace”comes over her. The words, “Our love will never die” are engraved on the back of the butterfly. “It’s very special to me,” Marie says.
Just like with Jim and Marie, the Mavencamps honor each resident in big and small ways. They bring things to deck out all 48 residents’ doors for almost every holiday. Every Christmas, they bring little gifts. And, every birthday is celebrated with either flowers or chocolates. During the week, they might help call bingo or just pop in for a visit.
“The most important thing that they do is just the physical touch that they give the residents,” Pam says. “The hugs and the smiles on their faces and it’s genuine. It’s so genuine. I can be in the middle of an exercise group and those boys come in and give everyone a hug. The joy on the residents’ faces tell it all because there is nothing like a child’s love.”
There’s plenty of joy with each visit, but the boys have learned at a young age to deal with heartache, too.
“We have hard times when we lose people and we lose a lot coming here,” Julie says. “They know that it is hard to see them go and we hurt when they are gone but they know what happens afterwards.”
As the Mavencamps wrapped up a recent visit, they watched a gentleman come down to the dining room for dinner. The boys hadn’t met him yet and Julie says, “They ran across the dining room to give him a hug when he got to his table. When they hugged him, he began to cry and said, ‘It’s been so long since a child hugged me.’”
Julie says she knows it’s a powerful gift that’s being accepted with open arms. She feels there’s no better way to honor her grandparents’ legacy than to teach her boys to love and respect their elders.
“You never know what one kind gesture, what one hug, can mean to someone,” Julie says.