The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for people to connect with family and friends in person. Many residents of senior living facilities are unable to see their families or have any visitors at all.
This is why Christian Kumar ’22, an exercise physiology major from Lynchburg, initiated a pen pal program between Westover Honors College students and residents of Runk & Pratt’s Pearls of Life at Liberty Ridge senior living facility.
Back in September, during a Westover Honors College executive board meeting — of which Kumar is a member — there was talk of starting a project with local senior living facilities.
“We wanted to reach out to the community at a time during the pandemic when they don’t get a lot of visitors, and we don’t have a lot of events. Being from this area, I knew of a couple of places to reach out to,” he said.
He connected with the activities director at Pearls of Life, a special memory support facility, and they provided a list of 10 residents who were willing to take part in a pen pal program where residents and students would write letters back and forth. Within 30 minutes of sending out an email to students, all the spots were claimed.
Rebecca Parks ’22, a psychological science major from Madison Heights, Virginia, said she signed up because it seemed like an awesome opportunity to work with older adults.
“I hope it’s important to them. When I’ve talked with my grandmother who used to work in a nursing home, they really value talking to young people and to know what is going with their life,” Parks said.
Parks selected a woman who attended Amherst County High School with the hope they could talk about their shared experiences attending the school — decades apart. As a special touch, the woman said in her biography that she liked flowers, so Parks bought sheets of flower stickers to decorate her letter and envelope.
Genevieve Neuwirth ’23, a biomedical science major from Waverly, New York, signed up for the pen pal program hoping to learn more about the resident she selected from Germany.
“You are writing to someone about you, and you are able to connect with that person on a different level than if you were just helping them out, versus just visiting them once. You are writing out who you are and talking with them like that. It’s a personal opportunity,” Neuwirth said.
The first set of letters were sent from the students to residents in early November.
“I think it’s really important. I’ve always had a passion for reaching out to the elderly. At Christmas time, we go and sing carols,” Kumar said. “A lot of elderly people don’t get a lot of visits, and having a grandmother in a facility makes me think about them more, especially now when you can’t go and visit in person. It brightens their day to get a letter.”
Kumar would like to see the program continue into next semester and, when it’s safe, meet the residents in person.
“The students get to meet someone they might not ever get to talk to and use a form of communication not used now. I would like to see it grow and network with other communities,” he said.