Intergenerational Pen Pal Program Benefits Seniors and Young Adults
Valley Regional High School (VRHS) alum Hannah Clark started an intergenerational pen pal program between recent VRHS graduates and residents at Essex Meadows as a way for all to stay engaged during the COVID pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Rose )
Emma Hunt-Bauman is a VRHS alum who has joined an intergenerational pen pal program. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Rose )
Susan Todd Jackson, who lives at Essex Meadows, is one of the participants in a new intergenerational pen pal program. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Rose )
When Essex resident Hannah Clark arrived home from Roger Williams University in mid-March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she went back to her job as a waitress at Essex Meadows, a senior living community.
During this time, the state was encouraging residents to shelter in place, especially seniors, who are most susceptible to COVID-19.
Clark said that she had a unique perspective on the pandemic, by being “at the forefront of seeing the psyche of the residents” while also speaking to “college friends who were sent home from these college communities.”
“There was such a universal feeling of wanting to take a hold of life and being upset that we didn’t have that freedom anymore,” said Clark.
To help both groups overcome this feeling, and others such as being “lonely, isolated, and bored,” Clark created an intergenerational pen pal program between former students of Valley Regional High School (VRHS), many of whom are now college students, and seniors at Essex Meadows.
As a former VRHS student herself, Clark was able to easily connect with old classmates and acquaintances by social media. Susan Carpenter, director of community life services at Essex Meadows, helped recruit seniors.
“The residents at Essex Meadows grew up writing letters to family members and loved ones overseas fighting wars,” said Carpenter. “…It’s comforting to know that this [younger] generation is showing itself to be just as creative and resilient as the G.I. generation! It gives me great confidence in our future.”
The program, which is ongoing, currently has a total of 40 participants (20 seniors and 20 students).
Susan “Todd” Jackson, 82, a former elementary school and special education teacher, received a note in her mailbox at Essex Meadows for the program.
“I thought, ‘That sounds like fun,’” said Jackson. “I might enjoy it.”
The public health crisis had halted Jackson’s travel to New York City, where she and her husband Bill own an apartment. It also prevented her from meeting in person with the Children’s Book Committee of the Bank Street Graduate School, of which she is co-chair.
Jackson said that the pandemic, has “been life changing. But we’re healthy, that’s the important thing.”
She adds that the pen pal program, along with connecting to local libraries for books as a part of her work reviewing children’s literature, has helped her “feel part of a community.”
“I enjoyed virtually getting to know a young woman who is local,” said Jackson. “I have never met her. I think perhaps we will meet…We’ve enjoyed this sort of back and forth.”
Jackson’s pen pal, Emma Hunt-Bauman, is a 2018 graduate of VRHS who now attends Auburn University in Alabama. They have corresponded about family life and their college experiences, which were very different.
Jackson, who went to Smith College in Massachusetts, arrived at school for the first time “with one suitcase and having a footlocker [sent] from California,” while Hunt-Bauman spent time prior to the start of classes visiting her college campus and furnishing her dorm room.
Hunt-Bauman said that she considers the program “an opportunity to make someone else feel good and give the residents something to look forward to.”
She was also “excited to get to know Todd, especially through a written format.”
Jackson said, “I have three grandchildren, [so] I feel it’s like getting another grandchild in another way. It’s been nice.”
Clark, who has returned to college life on-campus with a portion of her classes conducted online, said the intergenerational pen pal program will continue indefinitely.
“I plan on doing it so long as it’s needed,” said Clark. “The end goal is that we would be able to meet up in-person and have a little event where we could see each other’s faces.”
She added, however, that her initial intention “to create opportunity out of the change” caused by COVID-19 has been achieved.