Write to be kind: Penpal initiative matches young people with seniors

Clarisse Ng (pictured) found out about Penpals in the Community last October while scrolling through Instagram. PHOTOS: VALERIE HO, @PENPALSINTHECOMM/INSTAGRAM

SINGAPORE - Whenever her family brings in the mail, 16-year-old Clarisse Ng eagerly hopes there will be a letter from Madam Chan, a person she has never met.

If her eyes land on a familiar envelope on the dining table, her day is instantly brighter.

The pair, with an age gap of more than 60 years between them, are pen pals through Penpals in the Community, an initiative founded by marketing analyst Valerie Ho, 28, last year.

It aims to improve seniors' mental well-being and promote intergenerational bonds using the age-old medium of letter writing.

During the pandemic last year, Ms Ho was thinking of ways to help senior citizens who were stuck at home when she came across a story about a pen pal programme at a nursing home. She became inspired to bring it into the wider bigger community.

Said Ms Ho: "I thought this might be a good way to engage seniors when they were advised not to go out for activities. Letter writing was a common mode of communication in the past, so I thought it would be easier to encourage them to participate."

Following a brief trial, Penpals in the Community was officially launched in October. It recruits volunteers through its Instagram page (@penpalsinthecomm) and matches them with seniors from other community initiatives such as Kampung Kakis.

Clarisse, who is taking her GCE O-level examinations this year, found out about the initiative last October while scrolling through Instagram. She and Madam Chan write to each other about once a month.

She said reading the stories told to her by Madam Chan, who spent her childhood in China during World War II before she came to Singapore as a teenager, helps put in perspective her own challenges.

For instance, she had to be hidden in a basket by her mother to avoid her being seen by enemy soldiers during the war.

Clarisse said: "Thinking about the hardships she faced in China during the war, it made me appreciate the life I have.

"While living in this pandemic, even though many things have changed in my daily life, it is still comfortable overall, compared to what she went through."

She said writing letters also made her correspondence with Madam Chan more meaningful.

"When you receive a letter from someone, you feel that this person took the time and effort to think about you," she said.

Another volunteer, Ms Evonne Chua, 34, signed up last October after reading about Penpals in the Community online.

In her first letter to her pen pal, Mr Pang, who is in his 80s, Ms Chua wasn't sure how to start a conversation with a complete stranger.

She used an old postcard of Lau Pa Sat as a starting point, asking him if he had memories of the century-old market in Telok Ayer.

Mr Pang in fact had visited the market regularly on dates with his wife, and they would go there in later years with their children for meals. This naturally led to his giving Ms Chua, who is soon to be married, advice about family and life.

Said Ms Chua: "One of the most important marriage tips he gave me was to never ever give up on your partner no matter what condition they are in because once you are in a marriage, it is for life."

She too finds letter writing to be meaningful. "You really put more heart into writing. You must really think carefully about what you want to talk about, and plan it out carefully."

Currently, Ms Ho has two designers helping her create content on social media, but mostly she runs the initiative on her own, outside her full-time job as a marketing analyst.

She said that while she has been able to match over 30 pairs of pen pals, there are still about 100 young volunteers waiting to be paired up.

"The difficult part now is to get more seniors involved, so we are focusing a lot more effort on reaching out to senior activity centres and elderly homes."

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