Seventh-grade ELA students form a bond with a San Francisco Solano parishioner and learn about compassion, community, and joy in Christ's resurrection.
Bill Cochran saw the mistake as soon as he opened the email on October 30. It was an invitation to San Francisco Solano parish's annual Harvest Dinner, and it was addressed to him and his wife, Cheryle. But Cheryle had passed away a few months earlier. Bill emailed the parish to correct the mistake.
His email was received by Lynne Pantano, an event volunteer who is also a teacher at St. Junipero Serra Catholic school. She replied with a promise to update the parish mailing list and offered her condolences. Then, something made her send an additional response. "I thought about how often we promise to pray for others and how easy it is to forget to actually do it. I saw an opportunity to teach my students about the importance of keeping those promises," she said. "So I sent Bill another email letting him know that my students and I would pray for Cheryle during the month of November."
The next day, she told her 7th-grade ELA students what had happened. The students wrote and illustrated original prayers—one for each day in November—asking God to grant Cheryle, Bill, and the entire Cochran family peace and comfort. They scanned the prayers and emailed them to Bill, and a very special friendship was born.
Every day, the class read the prayer written for that date. Every few days, they emailed Bill a short note or received one from him. In one of those notes, Bill asked for their prayers for an upcoming medical procedure. On the day of the procedure, at the time it was scheduled to begin, the students sent Bill a video of themselves praying St. Teresa of Calcutta's "Flying Novena" to the Blessed Mother.
Another day, the students asked if they could include Cheryle in a special class project celebrating loved ones who have passed away. "It was such a loving, thoughtful gesture," said Pantano. "But to include Cheryle, we needed a picture of her, and I didn't know how to ask Bill for one." All night she tried to figure out how to make that request. But as it turned out, she did not have to. The very next day, she opened her email to find a message from Bill's son. Attached was a picture of Cheryle. No one could deny that God had had a hand in bringing Bill and the students together.
In December, the students finally got to meet Bill when he and his son, Kevin, joined them for Mass and visited with them afterward. The next day, they carefully set up the nativity set that Bill gifted them for their classroom. Over the next few weeks, they wrote gratitude journal entries about their meeting. For Valentine's Day, they sent Bill a picture of themselves holding their hands in the shape of hearts. In March, they decided to make praying for Bill each day part of their Lenten promise. During the school's annual heart run in April, some of the students chose to honor Bill and Cheryle because they were inspired by the couple's love.
"I am grateful to Bill and his family for sharing their journey from loss to Easter glory," said Lynne Pantano. "The students have learned more about compassion, community, and joy in Christ's resurrection than I ever could have taught them."
Here is what the experience meant to the students, in their own words:
"Our connection with Mr. Cochran was special because it showed us that a person's kindness can really make a difference. . . .I'm glad God brought us to each other."—Skye B
"This was cool because now I know that Cheryle is closer to heaven because of our praying." —Kendal C
"Now, Cheryle has moved on in peace. Her family can rest knowing she was loved and respected by people outside their family."—Nicholas C
"God worked with us in this situation by having someone contact Bill to make him feel loved by people he did not know."—Mia D
"I feel like getting to meet and befriend Bill was a plan of God."—Mary E
"One small invitation turned into a new bond."—Jane H
"When meeting Bill for the first time, he was so kind to everyone and you could feel the presence of someone special in the room. . . .Knowing God is watching over Cheryle on her journey to heaven is remarkable and comforting. Both of them will always have our prayers and be loved by all of us."—Luke K
"I knew that prayer is powerful, but this was a whole new level."—Lance L
"It was one of the greatest things that I have done for someone else."—Logan L
"We prayed every day, and that made me feel like we were part of his family. . . .I feel like God had something to do with us meeting Bill. "—Emily L
"Mr. Cochran taught us about the power of prayer. I am almost positive that meeting him changed the lives of my classmates and me because God heard all of us praying for peace for the Cochran family as they dealt with Mrs. Cochran's journey to heaven."—Dominique O
"When Bill and his son attended school Mass and visited us in person, everyone was so happy and delighted to meet. You could see that everyone there made a connection. . . . It started with an accidental email and led to something great. God truly brought us together." --Jacqueline P
"It was like our class had a strong bond with Bill even if we did not know him that well. I will remember Cheryle's death along with Jesus' this Easter."—Kamia R
"We like to see Easter as a time of new life in heaven, and we are able to see the connection between Cheryle's new life in heaven and Jesus' new life."—Luke S
"Meeting Bill Cochran was special because it was the first time our class had impacted someone without it being an 'assignment' or 'educational work.'. . . My encounter with Bill resulted in a different reaction than I have ever felt."—Katie S
"When we met Mr. Cochran for the first time, I knew I had done something good, something to be proud of. Jesus works through Bill, and I saw Jesus in him. This is something I will remember for the rest of my life."—Molly S
"Meeting with Bill was very special—it helped me learn about love and kindness. When we prayed for him and Cheryle it truly felt like God was in our presence."—Gavin T