By Kara Patterson
RSVP Program Assistant
Lorna Hamilton carefully saves the colorful cards she receives in the mail from her pen pals at Brewster Village through the Pen Pal Program, the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program’s newest service opportunity.
Hamilton’s pen pals at Brewster Village – a short-term rehabilitation and long-term care community in Grand Chute – prepare holiday and greeting cards with personal touches including puffy stickers, drawings and inspirational sayings.
“When I saw them in the mail, they were the first thing I opened because they were so cheerful and upbeat,” said Hamilton, an AmeriCorps Seniors volunteer with the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program since 2003.
“They send me different ideas of what they’re doing for entertainment,” Hamilton said. “They tell me about going to get their nails done, what they did at Christmas.”
Hamilton – a Pen Pal Program participant since March 2021 – usually writes to her pen pals at least once per month and says she looks forward to receiving mail from them.
“They decorate such nice cards for me,” said Hamilton, a Village of Fox Crossing resident. “They put a lot of effort into it. I think that’s what cheers me up.”
Volunteers and their pen pals alike benefit from the Pen Pal Program, which launched in October 2020 during a time when vulnerable populations were struggling even more with loneliness and social isolation due to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.
“It just made sense to provide a program that was safe for the volunteers and beneficial to the recipients of the letters,” said Jan Sommerfeld, RSVP director.
“With the pandemic, the goal of RSVP is to re-engage volunteers into community service.”
When Brewster Village paused its visiting schedule due to pandemic precautions, Sommerfeld reached out to Lisa Pingel, Brewster Village’s life enrichment director.
“The idea started, would we be interested in a pen pal program,” Pingel said. “We did a different spin on it.”
Instead of one pen pal writing to another, a handful of Brewster Village households – with about 14 villagers per household – currently receive mail from 10 AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers throughout the year. RSVP serves as the hub, ensuring the mail gets to and from the pen pals.
“What we do is we have it listed as a life enrichment event,” Pingel said. “When we get a card or letter from a volunteer… our staff will read it to the group. They then come up with what they want to send back.”
Pingel has been present when the villagers are hearing from their pen pals. The correspondence often focuses on Fox Cities area life, family events and the changing seasons.
“It might be, spring is coming, and the villagers might reminisce,” Pingel said.
Zoom and phone conversations filled in for visits with family and friends as the pandemic played out. Still, Pingel said, for the villagers to receive cards and letters is a special throwback to times gone by.
“We used to send letters. And who doesn’t like mail? They get excited for that,” she said.
In Hamilton’s letters to her pen pals, she has described listening to music in the parks during the summer.
“Sometimes I write about the books I’ve read,” she said.
“I’ll probably find a nice Easter card to send to them because they’re so considerate.”
Volunteers interested in writing letters/cards for the Pen Pal Program can contact Kara Patterson, RSVP program assistant, at 920-832-9360 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.