Connection in Isolation
Oregon Humanities started a letter-exchange project to connect Oregonians in 2014 that continues to thrive. They have invited others to start versions of this concept in their own communities. I am starting a youth-senior correspondence since these are two populations especially impacted by social distancing measures--using a secure, low-tech way to do so.
Essentially, the process is this: give a letter, get a letter.
How it Works:
A young person (18 and under) writes a letter based on a prompt to a senior (60 and over) and sends it to me. Upon receipt, I ensure anonymity and parental consent, and select a senior from a different ZIP code (and sometimes even another state!) to send it to who has signed up to participate.
The senior receives the letter (seeing only the young person's first name, age, and state of residence) and sends me an email with the reply within two weeks. I send the reply to the original letter writer (who sees only the senior's first name, age, and state of residence).
I facilitate all correspondence, using my professional writing site email address (email@example.com) as the only contact information. I also screen each letter and reply for appropriate content.
Just like that… a meaningful intergenerational exchange occurs during a time of quarantine (and some real-world remote learning)!
And there’s no time pressure--we all have enough of that. Letters will be collected and shared on a rolling basis as long as our nation is operating under any sort of social distancing.
How To: For Senior Participants (ages 60 and over)
Complete senior participant form.
I’ll pair you with a young person who sends me a letter for a senior, ideally beyond your ZIP code. The letter will ask you some questions about what certain aspects of life were like when you were their age. You’ll receive their anonymized letter from my email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reply to the letter within two weeks, sending it back to me at email@example.com.
I’ll send the reply on to the youth who wrote to you using my email address. If they choose to write to you again, they will contact me to do so. This is not required.
How To: For Youth Participants (ages 18 and under)
Complete youth participant form (parental/guardian consent requirement).
Email your letter for a senior to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Await your reply from a senior. If you choose to respond to the reply, you can email email@example.com to receive further instructions, but it is not required.
The Letter (What to Write): Ask the senior recipient approximately 5 questions about what life was like when they were your age (Remember to include your age!). Consider areas of natural curiosity as a good starting point. Into science? Ask questions around discoveries and what was considered high-tech. Budding fashionista? Find out more about what the style trends were. All about sports? Seek to learn how the games have changed. Whatever you're into, tap into that.
TIPS: Questions that do not simply result in yes, no, or 1-3 word answers are more effective. Words like who, what, when, where, why, and how are helpful ways to phrase inquiries.
NOTE: Even though exchanges occur electronically, participants may type or handwrite. If handwritten, scan or photograph the letter for delivery. Same goes for artwork should letter writers want to add extra cheer. Don’t fret either if a letter looks like it was written by a kid--it should if a kid wrote it! Practice with writing is how learners grow in skill and confidence.
When you were my age,
How did you celebrate your birthday?
What did you like to do after school?
Which supplies did you use to make art?
How did you spend your summer?
What was your favorite food, and why?
--Nora (age 7, North Carolina)
PS: “This is a picture of me and my brother enjoying a picnic at the park.”
Dear senior citizen,
Hello my name is Jane. I'm turning eleven and I'm going into sixth grade very soon. My favorite food is my grandpa's cookies. I especially love them when they're fresh from the oven and all gooey and warm. It's the best thing ever. My favorite movie currently is Moana. I love Moana because it's calming yet energetic. I also love the animation in the film. When this is all over I'm going to be very excited about the Disney cruise that is happening summer 2021. It was supposed to be this summer but it was cancelled due to COVID-19. My favorite singer is Billie Eilish. My friends introduced her to me and I just got hooked to Billie. I love her voice and her songs are one of a kind.
What about you, what was life like when you were my age? What are your favorite hobbies? Do you have a favorite movie, and if so what is it and why do you love it? What is your favorite music? Where would you like to vacation when this is all over? I know this is a hard time but you're not alone. You have me and everyone who loves you. We will get through this and that's a promise.
Jane (Age 11, North Carolina)
An Example Reply from a Senior:
Thank you for writing to me. My husband and I are well. We have been quarantined since early March and we look forward to being able to see our family. Hope you and your family are well. When I was your age it was 1951 and Mr. Truman was president. It was the year we moved from an apartment to a house with a backyard and lots of children on our street. The world was still recovering from World War II. Fashion was quite classic, dresses for girls with hemlines at midcalf, we wore hats to church on Sundays and pants for girls was only for playing.
I wore a blue skirt and white blouse to school. We walked to school in the morning, walked home for lunch and walked home after school. We had a bus pass to use the city bus but usually preferred walking with a neighborhood friend. Sometimes one of the Dads in our neighborhood picked us up and we would pile 8 - 10 kids into the car sitting on each other's laps. No seat belts or car seats. We had one radio in the house and my parents used it to listen to news and classical music. We did not get a TV till a few years later. Had one line phone with a party line. I had just gotten a bike and was learning how to ride it. In the summer we played baseball in the street and hide and seek. In the winter we made snowmen, shoveled the walkways and snowball fights.
Hope that gives you a glimpse into years past!
Sue (Age 76, Florida)
There is no length requirement for either letter or reply. I will not share personal contact information. I will share only first names, ages, and states of residence; however, you can share as little or as much information about yourself as you like. You may include recipes, artwork, photos, etc. that I can attach to or embed into an email if you choose. Please keep in mind that photos, even ones without people in them, may contain information that could be used to identify you.