When Saffron Patel ’22 felt the pangs of her distant grandparents’ loneliness in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, she resolved to do something about it—not just for her relatives, but for other seniors who also might be missing contact with their families and friends.
Motivated by what felt like necessity and equipped with their abundant compassion, ample ingenuity, and copious colored pens, Saffy and her sister Shreya, a 2019 graduate of Phillips Academy Andover, founded Letters Against Isolation, an organization that links volunteer letter-writers with people residing in various types of care homes. What began as two sisters’ desire to do some local good has quickly flourished into a communal grassroots movement.
Six weeks in, an astounding 1,027 volunteers from 46 states—as well as from England, Japan, and Australia— have written 5,521 letters.
“It’s working!” says Saffy. “To see that it’s having an impact and that it’s accomplishing our goal—to bring some aspects of the outside world, some socializing, to these seniors—makes all our work worth it. I think it’s important to look for ways to both help people out and connect yourself with others during this time when we’re all feeling a bit isolated.”
On May 8, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh issued a Certificate of Recognition to Saffy and Shreya “in honor of [their] dedicated service work” and “for making the world a better place.”
This home-grown effort developed last March while Saffy and her sister were in daily touch with their grandparents in Newcastle, England, and their grandmother in Dulwich, near London. Hearing news reports on the coronavirus’s dire physical effects on the elderly, Saffy and Shreya began to consider, too, the mental and emotional impacts on them.
“We noticed that our grandparents often mentioned that they were missing interacting with their friends. My ba (the Gujarati word for ‘grandmother’) used to go to the gym every day and talk with all her friends there,” says Saffy. “We started thinking about ways that we could help bring some more social aspects to the lives of seniors.”
Acting on their impulse to do something beneficial, Saffy and Shreya contacted a local nursing home. “We asked if we could send them some letters, and they were like, ‘Yes! Definitely! This is something we really need because our seniors are really affected by having to stay in their rooms,’” Saffy says. The demand for their cheerful cards and heartfelt messages soon outpaced the two sisters’ kitchen-counter production, though, and the idea for the volunteer organization was born.
They sought help by posting in online forums, and when response was huge, Saffy decided to make a website to establish a formal online presence. She researched the type of website that would work best for them and then, teaching herself along the way, designed an easy-to-use, colorful website with a clean, uncluttered aesthetic. Soon she added weekly statistics, a media page, and a blog containing interviews with recipients of the letters.
When Letters Against Isolation was mentioned in a Country Living article about ways to volunteer virtually, Saffy says, “Suddenly we had so many volunteers! I think 2,000 people visited our website within that week. Since then, we’ve grown a lot, which is really exciting.”
Other volunteers have found the organization through posts on Reddit and various social media platforms. Once they’ve registered online with Letters Against Isolation, Shreya sends them the address of a care home that she has previously contacted to offer this service. Using their own card-making and letter-writing materials and postage stamps, volunteers then send the greetings to the nursing home, assisted living facility, or rehabilitation center, where administrators distribute them among the seniors.
The recipients’ responses to the surprise missives have touched the two founders. “They’ve been hanging up the cards and looking at them to remind them that there are better times coming,” Saffy says. “It’s really lovely to hear that the letters are bringing some joy to them.”
Saffy and Shreya have heard the thanks firsthand from recipients they interviewed for their blog. “The most gratifying thing is knowing how deeply our letters impact the seniors who receive them,” Shreya says. “It makes me so happy to see how loved our volunteers’ letters make them feel.”
The volunteers themselves express gratitude for their part in the interaction. Among the BB&N students from all three divisions who have written letters, Dehlia Fallon ’21 has sent 70. She was drawn to Letters Against Isolation after her grandfather was turned away when trying to visit her great-grandmother in a nursing home. “These times are so uncertain and there’s not much we can do to change the current situation, so when I write these letters, I feel like I’m making a change,” Dehlia says. “While this is only a small thing I can do, I hope it brings these people happiness.”
Julia Shephard ’22 has also felt that her letter-writing efforts have been mutually beneficial. “It helps my state of mind because I get to feel as if I’m making a small impact, and it makes me look for the cheerful messages and anecdotes from my day; putting them down on paper helps me think about them myself.”
Shreya notes, “I think right now it is easy to feel scared. In doing something small but meaningful to help someone else, I think our volunteers are empowered. A lot of them are inspired to be more ambitious and find ways to help more people.”
Involvement with Letters Against Isolation has even sparked some volunteers to write on their own to care homes in their communities. “It’s really amazing to see how people have been taking their own initiative to continue this movement,” Saffy says, apparently unaware of just how much people admire her for what she and Shreya have accomplished. “During a time like this is, it’s so easy to get caught up in our individual miseries,” says Julia, “but Saffy has taken this opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives. That’s really inspiring for me.”
As their organization continues to draw volunteers, it is also attracting the attention of state agencies. NBC-affiliate television station WPSD in Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, and Tennessee broadcast a piece about Letters Against Isolation, which has since partnered with the Department of Aging in Illinois to include a letter with meals delivered to the elderly. So far, volunteers have written 700 of the 1,500 people receiving these meals.
The end of Letters Against Isolation is not in sight, as far as Saffy and Shreya are concerned. “We agree that it is something that we want to keep growing after the pandemic,” Shreya says. “Senior loneliness is a persistent problem, and we want to keep fighting it.” Hoping to become an entrepreneur, Shreya will matriculate next fall at Washington University in St. Louis, where she intends to study business and computer science.
As for rising-junior Saffy, the experience of founding and running this organization has taught her something more about herself. “I feel excited that I have the ability to find a problem and am proud of myself for doing my part to solve it,” she says. “Given that I’ve done this, if there’s another problem that I find, I have the capability to harness other volunteers to help us combat it.”
Meanwhile, though, back in the Patel household there are more pictures to draw, more notes to write. “We get busy with the administration of everything,” Saffy says with a smile, “but we really like to sit down as a family and get the markers out and write a bunch of cards.”
Click here for a video of Saffy talking about Letters Against Isolation.
Written by Sharon Krauss, US English Department