Letters of Hope connect seniors to pen pals

Knoxville Catholic High School students turn COVID outreach idea into global group

By Emily Booker

The pandemic has kept many people apart and homebound for much of the year. For seniors it can be an incredibly lonely time as family and friends can’t visit in order to keep them safe and healthy.

But a group of high school students is making sure the senior citizens in their community know they are not forgotten.

Knoxville Catholic High School seniors Marisa McMichael, Fatima Arias-Santiago, and An Doan found a way to bring hope and joy to those feeling isolated and alone.

Marisa McMichael signs her letter of hope to assisted-living residents.

“We were in the same religion class last year, and we were brainstorming before the pandemic some ideas on how to help our community,” Marisa said.

“Then, when COVID-19 happened, we wanted to do something with that, and elderly residents came to mind.”

They reached out to several Knoxville-area assisted-living and dementia-care facilities and began writing letters to the senior residents.

Thus began Letters of Hope, a program that started with three students and has now grown to participants all over the world.

They became pen pals with the senior residents, writing about life as a young person and asking about their lives as seniors. They also encouraged the elderly through a very lonely time of lockdown.

“I also told them that they were not alone. I always tried to let them know that I was here for them even though I didn’t know them,” Fatima said.

The goal of every interaction is to spread a bit of positivity and connection while the pandemic keeps people apart. And do that while following coronavirus protocols like social distancing and wearing masks.

“Initially it was just us trying to help the community, but it seemed like a lot of our friends wanted to do it, too, which expanded it,” An said.

“We started with writing letters in March and April,” Fatima said. “We decided letters would be the best possible way to help them not feel isolated because we couldn’t see them in person

or anything like that during the pandemic.”

Fatima Arias-Santiago, An Doan, and Marisa McMichael deliver letters of hope to senior residents at the Morning Pointe Assisted Living and Memory Care facility in Knoxville

“Then we started making Google forms for people to sign up. People started signing up, and we started sending out names. It was surprising because people from other states and even other countries started signing up as well,” she added.

Word also spread online. The group created Twitter and Instagram accounts to promote the project and share its positivity. That attracted people from all over the world who wanted to write Knoxville seniors. There are now participants from as far away as Australia and the Philippines.

But the students wanted to do even more. They thought of a safe, distanced way of visiting the elderly residents, by placing posters and balloons on the outside of their windows.

“The first time we [visited] was in the summer. And it was just us three the first couple of times. Then some of our friends started joining. Then we opened it up for people who wanted to volunteer to come, too,” Marisa said.

They have made visits to Morning Pointe Assisted Living and Memory Care and Island Home Park Health and Rehab, where they share their handmade posters with positive messages as well as smile and wave to the residents.

“Sometimes we talk to the seniors and they really appreciate our signs, and they said that that actually made their day. It made them really happy because we had them in our thoughts and are just spreading positivity during this time,” An said.

“I really feel like I’m actually helping the community right now. I live with my grandparents, so I have daily contact and daily interaction with them. But a lot of elders in our community, they’re living alone. So it really brings me joy when I see them being happy. And I know there’s hope for all of us to stand together and navigate through this trying time,” he noted.

Marisa, Fatima, and An want Letters of Hope to continue after they graduate. They would like to see another group of students take it over and reach out to seniors, even when the COVID-19 restrictions have passed.

“It’s still a great way to keep our elders in mind and keep everyone happy,” Marisa said.

If you’d like to take part in Letters of Hope, you can follow the project on Twitter @lettersofhope2 and on Instagram @knox.lettersofhope. You also can sign up to be a pen pal or volunteer by e-mailing the group at knox.lettersofhope@gmail.com.

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