Making New Friends an Old-Fashioned Way – Through Letter Writing

A collaboration between Austin Bat Cave, Foundation Communities, and Letterpress PLAY encourages pen pals to bridge generational divides

Casey and Dana Yi (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The event of the day in the Yi household is the letter. Casey Yi, a seventh-grader, and her mom Dana gather around the computer to see the email, from a writer they have never met. They laugh at the jokes he tells. They look up the chess prodigies and historical biographies he mentions. When he doesn't write, they worry.

Casey is excited to write back. She has, unexpectedly, met a new person in quarantine. And – even more unusually – they communicate exclusively in long-form writing.

She "met" her pen pal, a senior citizen several times her age, through an intergenerational letter-writing program organized by literacy and writing nonprofit Austin Bat Cave. The program matches younger students with older Austinites in the hopes of combining a potential for magic – who hasn't gotten a little thrill upon seeing a handwritten letter from a friend addressed to you? – and offline human connection with an incentive for youth to practice writing.

The program is a three-way collaboration between ABC, Foundation Communities' affordable housing program, where many elderly penpals live, and Letterpress PLAY, a local letterpress design studio and stationary company that donated dozens of custom picture frame/toy crafts called Thaumatropes to participants.

It was an offshoot of a pre-pandemic grant to Austin Bat Cave, to help it match younger students with senior citizens for in-person interviews and essays. COVID's mid-March arrival made the original program impossible; however, Syed Ali Haider, ABC's executive director, said the team still wanted to pursue a project involving intergenerational connection, and created this one, which is free for participants.

And the participants, although they started out tentatively, are largely taking to the challenge. Haider said he saw one participant writing a nine-page letter.

"[Kids are] so isolated, and they're used to communicating with a large network of people," Haider said. "It seems like they're pouring all of this energy into this one letter. I mean, nine pages is very impressive. I can't remember the last time I wrote a nine-page letter."

The project offers a chance to meet new people, get the latent social energy out in a pen-to-paper (or, for some, fingers-to-keyboard) way. It is also one of the best ways for young writers to develop their voices – a task Haider, who has a degree in creative writing, struggled with himself. In writing to someone they've never met in real life, he said, kids may be able to find ways to put their personalities and interests on the page.

"What students are discovering through letter writing is they kind of drop the pretense of writing for a grade or writing for an assignment, and they're just writing from their voice," Haider said. "It's this natural shift."

For Chris Humphrey, an older Austin artist who corresponded with an art college student, the program was exciting because it reminded her that "there are people out there I can connect with." An added benefit of letter writing: It avoids the annoyances of texting.

"If I'm texting someone, I spend half my time correcting autocorrect, so I spend more time thinking about that than about what I'm trying to say," Humphrey said.

However, for Casey and her mother Dana, the most important benefit is that of making a new friend.

"I'm glad it turned out that Casey cares," Dana said. "I'm surprised that she took to it like that, that it became kind of a compassionate thing, and that she actually thinks about him and wonders what he's going to write back. And I feel like – we always talk about it – it makes him happy too."

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