Teenagers and centenarians are connecting with the time-tested practice of exchanging letters as pen pals in a nationwide effort to help seniors feel less isolated and provide companionship during the pandemic.
Green Valley and Sahuarita are in on it, too.
Tasked with finding community service projects to meet National Honor Society requirements, Sahuarita High School students launched a pen pal exchange with residents of La Posada senior community in Sahuarita last fall, surprising their co-adviser Michelle Betteridge in both number and earnestness.
“They usually do a lot of community service physically out in the community but COVID had a lot more restrictions,” she said.
Honor student Rylee Koebnick said the project fit the bill on several fronts – it would help the community, fit into a school year, didn’t require breaching COVID restrictions and met Honor Society rules.
It’s also provided contact and educational opportunities for high schoolers, who for several months attended classes from home. It also helped them improve skills in communication, socializing, gaining new perspectives and discovering similarities spanning generations.
It was a no-brainer for Barbara Salazar, volunteer coordinator for Posada Life, to agree to oversee the project from the senior end. As a former teacher, librarian and preschool director, she’s already familiar with many benefits of having a pen pal.
Staff knew the seniors needed more to do, “they were just stuck in their apartments,” she said. “What better way to learn about a different (perspective) than this?”
Student interest began so slowly that at first there weren’t enough for every senior to have a pen pal, said Rylee, an incoming senior at SHS. But soon students warmed to the idea, assignments were made, deadlines set then letters readied for Salazar to hand deliver.
Some participants have had pen pals before; for others, it’s new territory. The only downside voiced by some participants is that they wish the exchanges were more frequent. Rylee said more often than monthly may have been a stretch for the students’ schedules, although several also arranged to meet their pen pal in person.
“I did it as a kid; that was the norm back then and wasn’t seen as (unusual),” Betteridge said. As the honor students searched for meaningful ways to connect with the community in ways they hadn’t yet, “they were really excited about this.”
Some letter exchanges grew to include pictures, stories and small gifts; one gave a book based on interests their pen pal had mentioned. Another sent an eight-page, handwritten letter with pictures, said Betteridge, who co-advises the honor students with fellow English teacher Alex Fry.
“I was very surprised at how much my pen pal and I had in common,” Rylee said. Each had ties to Michigan and background in filmmaking. “It was crazy considering how we’ve never met.”
Randomly paired, a few by known interests, the teens wrote, some by hand; others typed, starting last fall. No emailing allowed.
The seniors did the same, overseen by Adult Day Services director Denise Turner at Posada. She assisted whoever needed help with their handwriting, provided subject “prompts” and passed completed letters to Salazar.
Salazar loved that students spent “a good amount of time” thinking about what they’d write, not just immediately sitting down and tapping out a response, she said. And although many of the students already had impressive writing skills, she couldn’t overlook an opportunity to further hone paragraph-writing, putting sentences together and spell-checking.
Several show maturity and self-expression well beyond their years, she said.
In their letters, seniors talk about their lives; kids, their hobbies, school activities, dreams, sometimes family. One senior said her pen pal had never mailed a letter before, so sent her a book of stamps.
There are ancillary benefits, too.
“We started to teach how to write a proper email,” Betteridge said. “They (kids) were good with technology but didn’t know where to start. We’re seeing improvement in that.”
Not saying emails can’t be personal, she said, “but there’s something about receiving a handwritten note that is important in building a connection.”
The program’s been such a hit, she thinks it could return next year. But that’ll be up to incoming honor students to help decide.
Retired college professor and volunteer recruiter John Geiger, a senior pen pal at La Posada, is among those hoping for a comeback.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. His pal was a college-bound high school junior fascinated by history, “finding it revealing of American life,” he said. She also wrote about family and sports activities. “I’d write about what we were doing here, my youth, growing up.”
When stumped for subject matter, the seniors tapped personal memoirs some are composing as members of a writing group at La Posada, he said. The interaction has helped young and old alike. His one regret is that he hasn’t yet met his pen pal in person, although maybe someday he will.
“During COVID times, this has really been amazing,” he said. “I’ve seen kids on TV shows about learning via Internet, all the problems, keeping kids’ attention, missing personal interaction. There’s been some reports of college attendance dropping, I’m not sure it will actually hold. Next fall enrollment will be down.”
Senior Kate Ovens was matched with a teen from a Hispanic family, “very forthcoming about school activities, clubs, music, math and family,” she said. He’s college-bound and aiming for a career in pediatrics. “His language skills are very good (and) not so abbreviated it sounds like a text.”
He’s inquired about family, her likes and dislikes, and mentioned sharing one of her comments with a friend. Something made them “laugh their heads off,” maybe at a description of how things were done “way back when.”
Senior pen pal Wilma Ludwig is a retired home ec teacher, and learned of the pen pal program through a La Posada newsletter. For her “match,” who recently graduated and is off to military training, letter-writing was a new experience.
“She came from a family who’s been very separated; dad left the family when she was young, leaving her mother to raise her,” Ludwig said. She characterized her as “very bright” and focused on a medical career. Ludwig says she’s already come far, given early challenges.
Ludwig recalled exchanging letters with a pen pal in England during World War II; the woman thoughtfully sent her a sweater she’d handknitted.
When exactly having a pen pal caught on is sketchy by cursory Internet search, though one source found several references to the 1930s. The Student Letter Exchange’s website say it has helped match pals since 1936, after a teacher wanted to connect with counterparts in other countries to pique their curiosity and learn more of other cultures.
With her current pen pal, Ludwig was was thrilled to learn of their commonalities and receive a picture before her pal left for basic training. They plan to continue corresponding.
“She seemed like a very happy person, which is good when I look at her background,” Ludwig said, adding that she hopes the program will resume this fall.
For senior Bettie Thayer, who turns 101 this year, the pen pal project has been a boon. A longtime volunteer for several organizations, she is a past president of Green Valley’s Friends in Deed, where she came to value its weekly, onsite Friday Socials to combat senior isolation long before COVID.
She’d never been a pen pal, but survived the aftermath of the Spanish Flu, which from 1918 to 1920 infected 500 million people, and heard firsthand accounts.
“I think history repeats itself,” she said. “There’s been plagues before.”
Her pen pal has graduated with plans to become a pilot, although interestingly doesn’t drive a car nor wants to, she said. “She is a very nice young lady, I really think she’ll go places."
“I love to write a letter and even hold one,” she said. “As a (Red Cross) volunteer, I’d always (hand-write) a thank you note to donors. We’re losing all the niceties. Everything is so commercial now, people gotta hurry up and be somewhere.”
She was tickled pink when her pen pal wrote back most recently, requesting her address so the two could stay in touch.
Letters for Rose
Another avenue senior pen pals may choose is through Delaney Watkins, a 15-year-old high school student attending classes online from her Sahuarita home.
She's a chapter coordinator with Letters for Rose, a national effort founded by teens who’d volunteered for a senior facility back East until pandemic restrictions canceled personal visits. So they launched a program to connect with the seniors, staffed by high school students who create and distribute personalized letters, art and donations for senior facilities. It now has chapters in 20 states and internationally.
Watkins’ East Tucson chapter encompasses Sahuarita/Green Valley. She learned about the organization through social media and applied “because I like meeting new people,” she said. Although COVID inspired it, “it is a bit more than that.”
Years ago, she had an elderly relative and recognized seniors are without much social interaction in general, and tend to experience loneliness at more extreme levels.
“This is just another way for people to connect more with our communities. People meet who wouldn’t have otherwise. It feels good to get something from someone just to validate you.”
Their thing is giving letters, artwork and small gifts to those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, who tend to suffer most from lack of social connection.
She characterizes it “not quite a pen pal program,” as the students don’t expect to receive anything. “If someone wants to write back and I hear about it through Barbara, from there, we would have (the letter) picked up and given to a volunteer, and people may request to be paired with a pen pal,” she said.
She envisions the program continuing even after the pandemic passes.
Long live activity
Perhaps no one is more hopeful for that than Salazar, being that promoting volunteerism is what she does.
“I think it has blossomed during COVID," she said of having a pen pal, "but has tended to operate for families on the back burner other times.”
Its benefits are too great and drawbacks rare.
“Even teachers with students who don’t like to write, they don’t have to have the skills,” she said. “They can send a picture to a shut-in. It’s a whole intergenerational thing. They need to keep those activities going. It’s so important.”