Volunteer Program Connecting Generations
They pair off two-by-two and sit at tables sharing donuts and conversation. Though some of the duos met face-to-face for the first time just moments before, they talk as though they have known each other far longer.
Carole asks her pen pal where she found the really great picture she included in her last letter. Sandy’s pen pal—an aspiring art and music therapist—pulls a tablet out of her bag and shares images of her latest paintings.
This late-January gathering brought six youth from the Hillside Family of Agencies to visit with the St. John’s residents they have connected with through pen and paper. While the idea was always to help the kids establish a line of meaningful correspondence with positive role models they could learn from, these meetups—and there have been several over the past few months—were never part of the plan.
The original design of the program was for letters to be anonymous outside of sharing first names, with no plan for pen pals to ever meet. “The pen pal is considered to be someone who cares about them, even though they don’t necessarily know them personally,” says Don Armstrong, Director of Volunteer Programing for Hillside. According to Don that changed once students began requesting in-person meetings with their new friends, a surprising wrinkle.
At one of the tables, St. John’s Meadows resident Karyl Friedman catches up with her pen pal Kyle. This is actually her third meeting with Kyle and the two have bonded quickly. While she initially found it difficult writing her first letter under the parameters of the program, she quickly found common ground with her new friend. “We hit it off almost immediately.”
Karyl worked in finance as a bond trader in her professional life. However, much of the free time throughout her life has been dedicated to another passion of hers: cooking. It turns out that Karyl’s teenaged pen pal shares that passion. Kyle is currently involved in the culinary program at Hillside and hopes to someday work at a restaurant. The two trade recipes back-and-forth, with Kyle recently sending Karyl cooking instructions for a spicy bean soup which she then made in her apartment and enjoyed.
Karyl and Kyle’s shared passion for cooking is not coincidental. Participating St. John’s residents are quick to credit Don’s efforts to match the students with pen pals, who share common interests, with the early success of this volunteer program. While these blossoming connections seem to be an obvious result of those efforts, some of the other ways these relationships benefit the kids from Hillside are just as important. According to Don, students with pen pals often display improved interpersonal relationships with their fellow students over time.
Additionally, volunteer pen pals from St. John’s are helping support the efforts of Hillside teachers by providing an additional source of positive feedback through their letters. Don takes this idea a step further, suggesting that having a pen pal can provide students with a creative outlet they would not otherwise have. “Our youth need a way to express their creativity,” says Don. “This program allows kids to share their artwork or other work that they’ve done with their pen pals so they know there is someone out there who appreciates their work.” He adds, “The impact is hard to describe.”
Karyl shares an anecdote that speaks to the benefits of the program as it continues to grow. She happened to mention to her pen pal through a letter how it would be nice to be able to read his writing more easily. The response, as Karyl says, was almost immediate. “What a difference that one little comment made. You can tell that he is writing more slowly and carefully.”
The positive response to the pen pal initiative has created more work for Don Armstrong, a burden he happily takes on. “At first, sitting down with pencil and pad doesn’t always appeal to many of the kids,” Don says of what some call the dying practice of letter writing. “The excitement that is generated when letters are delivered (to Hillside) changes that and other kids want to be a part of the program. They then ask me if I can find them a pen pal of their own.”
The point-of-view of St. John’s residents is similarly positive. As volunteer pen pals have shared their experience with neighbors, interest in the program has grown. “The connection has been great from both sides,” says Karyl.
Future meetings between Hillside students and their St. John’s pen pals are in the works for the coming weeks and months. There is also interest in having a group of St. John’s pen pals visit Hillside for an open house.