NORTH SALEM, N.Y. - Now that’s what you call out-of-the-mailbox thinking.
A new pen pal program that connects the residents of a North Salem health care facility with school-age children and others proves that social distancing doesn’t mean emotional distancing.
The pandemic has been a particularly isolating and lonely experience for older adults and other high-risk populations. But it’s also been rough on youngsters, who, with a little extra time on their hands, may be looking for something meaningful to do to occupy themselves.
Something as simple as signing a card, writing a letter or drawing offers them a glimpse into the past and life lessons in compassion, while their older “pals” gain companionship and the chance to brighten a child’s world.
With all that love flying back and forth in tiny envelopes, the program has been a win-win, says Denise Moore of Waterview Hills Rehabilitation and Healthcare in Purdys.
Last month, the center reached out to the public, asking people to write or send photos and drawings to the center’s residents. It even made a realistic looking blue postal box—and a smaller red, white and blue one—in which residents can place their outgoing mail.
Since then, pen pals have connected with them on every topic from sports and food to pets and video games.
So far, the program’s been a great success, says activities director Scott Urgoli. While postcards have come from as far away as Germany, he said he has found those that have originated closer to home are especially touching.
And at least one local Scouting troop plans to lend a hand with cards and letters, too. With the holidays coming up, the more help the merrier, says Urgoli.
Even if residents aren’t able to write back, getting mail buoys their spirits.
“I think that goes a long way, just having that letter in your room,” Urgoli said.
Calling it “phenomenal,” Moore points to one pen pal pod in particular: Brewster High School’s Career Skills program. Ranging in age from 14 to 21, students there face various challenges. Besides taking academic classes, they learn employment skills through internships at local businesses and organizations such as Green Chimneys, Kobacker’s Market and Tops.
The pandemic has put those jobs and social outlets temporarily on hold, so students were beyond excited when they were asked to be pen pals, says teacher Sarah Barnes.
They have been busily posing for “smile” photos and crafting piles of autumn leaves from foam paper, glitter and beads to send to Waterview residents.
The fact that they grew up as part of a digital generation more familiar with a keyboard than a No. 2 pencil hasn’t stopped students from enjoying letters written in cursive, Barnes said.
Barnes and the two other teachers in the program, Denise Galgano and Donna Schneider, type the words, which makes it easier for them to read. Students get to keep the original correspondence.
Residents get a little help, too. If they’re not up to writing, they can dictate what they want to say to one of Waterview’s activities employees. They also enjoy having cards and letters read to them.
Brewster students who are learning from home also participate. Although it’s hard to resist opening their letters right away, they hold on to them until the whole class can do it together via Zoom.
Waterview residents have been equally “amazing,” says Barnes, mentioning one woman who wrote back to all 15 students, making each and every letter personal.
It’s the kind of bonding that’s priceless, she adds, and one teachers hope lasts throughout—and beyond—the school year.
Human contact has great healing powers, agrees Waterview resident Charlette “Holly” Timpson, who’s happy to be part of the pen pal program.
“I love kids and I love being able to communicate with kids,” says the 64-year-old retired missionary and mom.
Timpson just started corresponding with a set of young brothers who told her in a joint letter that they love swimming, basketball, football and playing video games—although not necessarily in that order.
The Bible studies teacher wrote back, gently nudging the boys to tell her what their favorite thing about school was.
“I can’t wait to hear from them again,” she says.
A lifelong crafter, Timpson hasn’t let physical limitations stop her from breaking out her collection of paints, pencils, markers and glue sticks any chance she gets.
Quilling is apparently just one talent in her Michael’s box of tricks.
Rolling, shaping and gluing together narrow strips of paper, Timpson uses the technique to create an angel and an alien for the boys.
Don’t let the feline out of the bag, but she plans to send them coloring-book pictures of Grumpy Cat—the kitty whose scowling face is said to have launched a thousand quips.
Even the pen pals mailbox might eventually benefit from her artistic touch, Timpson hints.
A reative of Timpson’s, after just learning how to crochet, decided to make a king-size bedspread. Although the big blanket turned out fine, its exhausted maker admitted that she wasn’t anxious to tackle as ambitious a project as that again.
Timpson’s advice? “If you’re going to try something (for the first time), try something small.”
Writing to someone might seem like a small thing, but it can grow into something much greater. It could be a lifelong friendship or just the chance to temporarily gladden someone’s heart but, for the price of a stamp or two, no one could land a bigger bargain.
Letters can be sent to:
Waterview Hills Rehabilitation
and Healthcare, Pen Pal Program c/o Activities
Department, 537 Route 22, Purdys, NY 10578