When the pandemic hit in March, NEW saw an outpouring of supporters wanting to help. In person volunteering was off but the women — especially the seniors living alone — needed connections more than ever.
NEW launched a volunteer letter-writing campaign, enlisting volunteers to regularly write letters to the women at NEW in an effort to help them feel a little less isolated. Almost 60 volunteers signed up and have since then written hundreds of letters. The NEW women love these little expressions of support and encouragement from strangers in their community. They look forward to them, and often display them around their rooms and apartments.
“My ladies absolutely adore the letters,” said Case Manager Dom Dipini who still meets her clients regularly, masked and at a safe distance, despite the pandemic. “They talk about the letters all the time.”
It’s been a little light in a dark time for the NEW women and a help for the case managers trying to keep their clients positive and healthy.
But the letters have equally affected the letter writers as well, providing them with a way to care for people in their community during these strange times.
“I have been writing a weekly note to one of the women living at a NEW location for over four months,” said volunteer and NEW Vice Chair board member Iris Drayton-Spann. “I usually write the notes over a weekend, so that I can mail them to her once a week. I put positive quotes or sayings or words of encouragement. I have music playing in the background as I write my notes. My husband always knows when I’m writing out my notes, from the gentle sounds of jazz and R&B coming out of the Alexa dot.”
It’s also made the volunteers more thankful for what they have, realizing that not everyone has a support system to fall back on. Kristen Burke has been writing a letter a month to her pen pal, sometimes including poetry or watercolor paintings.
“I have enjoyed creating the cards for her,” she said. “In a time that I often feel anxious and isolated, I reflect on my gratitude in having community—whether that be roommates to share meals with, family to call, or friends in different cities to text and FaceTime with. It makes me further appreciate my community. And now I have loved being able to extend my community to the include NEW and my pen pal.”
The letter writers have found routine and solace in their efforts as they spread a love for women — strangers whom they have never met — who have experienced homelessness.
“I feel so much better after I write these note cards,” Drayton-Spann said. “They put me in a different mindset, because of the pandemic. I’m able to express kindness to someone else and hopefully put a smile on her face when she checks her mail.”
These little acts of kindness seem so much more important right now, at a year marked by division. Another volunteer, Rev. Minette Wood wrote about her experience writing letters.
“I recall waking up on a rainy day with a passionate urgency to write to my pen pal. That day, I wrote my first letter. In writing, I felt strangely connected to my pen pal (whom I never met). What matters the most to me is not that she necessarily replies but, that she receives, reads, and is encouraged by the note. As a letter writer, I am planting and sowing seeds of hope and encouragement. The note, letter or card is planted in her heart and her thoughts, so when those weak moments, triggers, voices of negativity, and loneliness attempt to sabotage her success, she will have something that speaks to her positively, hopefully lifting her spirits, knowing that someone genuinely cares.”
The women at NEW have not written their pen pals back, but that has not dissuaded the volunteers from continuing their selfless act, and relationships between volunteer and letter recipient forms nonetheless. Because the holidays can be challenging for many people, some volunteers are planning on writing even more letters this month.
“I hope she enjoys the notes, because I value being able to write them to her,” Drayton-Spann said. “I just want her to know, she is loved, she is special and she is my NEW pen pal.”