Pen Pals Share the Joy of Letter Writing
How people are connecting across the country during the pandemic
Since late March I've been getting a little spring in my step every time I head to the mailbox. Anticipating my latest Amazon order? No. That government stimulus check? Nope. I'm hoping for a letter from a 20-year-old man.
Allow me to explain. Jacob is my pen pal. We were paired through the Shut-In Social Club, an organization that Nashville, Tennessee, resident Courtney Cochran founded to unite people during the coronavirus pandemic through the lost art of letter writing.
Cochran, 36, is a former creative director for a stationery company and devotee to all things office supply. After leaving her job in November 2019, she started hosting pop-ups dubbed Snail Mail Social Clubs. At these events she'd provide participants with supplies and lead them through a workshop on letter writing. They then crafted letters to people they knew, or Cochran would pair them with someone from a directory she'd created.
"What really compels me is wanting to facilitate this human connection between people, and letter writing is a fantastic way to do that,” she says.
Then came the pandemic, which put an end to in-person events.
Undaunted, Cochran recalibrated her idea and launched the Shut-In Social Club, which connects people interested in communicating via handwritten letters with like-minded folks from across the country. People join through her website or social media pages, and she links them with each other, as well as with facilities like nursing homes. The idea isn't necessarily to form a lasting pen pal relationship, she explains, but to “just send joy out into the world and perpetuate these positive feelings, because that's good for us right now."
Pandemic or not, studies show that the act of letter writing has tremendous benefits for both the writer and the recipient. A paper published by Northern Illinois University's Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language and Literacy states that, “Although extended letter writing is less common today, given the ease of text messaging and email for instant communication … letter writing can be seen as significant and consequential in people's lives, serving to maintain familial ties, communicate news and personal information, or resolve disputes.” The simple act of writing itself has many positive benefits, the paper says, including “improve[d] memory function, decreased symptomatology, and greater feelings of happiness."
To date, Cochran has connected nearly 1,000 people in every age group through both clubs.
She believes that the social disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic have increased interest in letter writing. “A silver lining on a very gray cloud,” she observes. “We just need it right now, more than ever, now that we're all distanced and quarantined and all of that.”
Kirstin Reed recently started the Pandemic Pen Pals program at the O'Neill Center in Marietta, Ohio. The nonprofit facility helps seniors in the southeastern part of the state to live independently by providing organized activities, services and support. It remains closed because of the pandemic and will be among the last facilities to reopen, due to older people's vulnerability to COVID-19.
At the onset of the crisis, the center identified 130 seniors who needed to self-isolate at home due to preexisting conditions. The facility has provided regular deliveries of groceries and essentials to them, but Reed recognized that they had needs beyond the physical — namely, human contact. So she tailored to her clients the pen pal programs that nursing homes began launching during the pandemic. The goal is similar to Cochran's, but with a twist.
"We don't have residents in our facility, but I know [our clients are] at home right now, and since they're not able to have that interaction with others … they're bored at home,” Reed says. “What if they looked forward to going out and getting something in the mail?"
Curious if she would have community support, Reed floated the idea on Facebook. Within an hour 75 people, most of whom are in their 30s, expressed interest.
To facilitate the program safely, she asks participants to send their first letter to the O'Neill Center. She'll open it, record their information and then include the letter, with an explanatory cover sheet, in clients’ grocery deliveries. It's up to the recipients whether they write back, although the center will help them if they need supplies.
The traditional letter-writing format is perfect for her clients, Reed says. “A lot of them really don't like technology. So this is easy for them, this is something they know how to do and something they can look forward to every day.”
Reed hopes the program fosters lasting friendships for the seniors, many of whom live alone and have little family support. “They're coming to the O'Neill Center because they want to interact with people,” she says. “I feel like this is going to really help lift their spirits right now, especially when everything is so negative.”
Both women see this renewed desire to connect with people in a meaningful way as a positive side effect of the coronavirus pandemic. And nothing connects people better than a handwritten letter, Cochran says. “It impacts people in a way that a phone call does not. An email or a text message cannot touch them in the same way that a letter does, for some reason.”
Reed adds, “And it's nice to get something in the mail other than bills!"
To participate in the Shut In/Snail Mail Social Clubs, visit snailmailsocialclub.com
To join the O'Neill Center Pandemic Pen Pal Program, send a letter to:
Attn: Pandemic Pen Pal
333 Fourth St.
Marietta, OH 45750