New pen pal program helps counter pandemic isolation 

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Mount Carmel Clinic is connecting older adults in the Point Douglas and North End neighbourhoods with pen pals across the Prairies to shake pandemic doldrums and create connections.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/03/2021 (617 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mount Carmel Clinic is connecting older adults in the Point Douglas and North End neighbourhoods with pen pals across the Prairies to shake pandemic doldrums and create connections.

Community engagement co-ordinator Claire Friesen said the inbox is buzzing with handwritten and scanned letters.

A medley of introductions and well wishes cascade down sheets of loose leaf and decorative stationery. Some have decorated their notes with hand-drawn flowers, smiley faces, and hearts.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mount Carmel Clinic says it received overwhelming feedback for its pen pal program.

Friesen expects the snail mail to begin pouring in later this week.

“I hope (the older adults) feel loved and supported and seen… that they have a special connection with someone in the community,” she said.

Within two days of sounding the call for writers, 120 people signed up, the majority between the ages of 18 and 55. Some youth and seniors have joined, too.

“Our volunteers have come from far and wide,” Friesen said. “We did get a lot of volunteers from the North End, which is so wonderful.”

Friesen said she’s struggled to find new ways for community members to bond without meeting face-to-face amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her mind turned to older adults struggling with social isolation. Many are carrying the emotional weight of not being able to visit with their elders — some of whom don’t have access to video connections like the younger generations do, she said.

“A lot of our older adults will have written letters as a correspondence. (It) might feel really lovely to receive something so personal.”

Each pen pal will also receive a packet of wildflower seeds in their packages (with the support of Winnipeg Trails Association and Northern Wildflowers, a seed company from Ontario).

“We thought we could send a little gift out to seniors in the North End to participate in trail building with us,” said Leigh Anne Parry, WTA project manager.

Parry encourages recipients to plant the flowers in yards, boulevards, and pathways, in harmony with the association’s motto: every trail starts at home.

Mount Carmel Clinic partnered with a group that supports older adults in the area to recruit participants from apartments, homes, and assisted living facilities. Once the pen pals are paired up, Friesen will dispatch the letters.

To make the volunteer opportunity more accessible, the community health organization has put together take-home pen pal packages that include stationery, stamps, and self-addressed letters.

Friesen is auditing the letters keep everyone safe, and plans to check up on participants if they stop responding to their pals.

“Lots of our volunteers are really curious about learning from older adults… what life was like when they were a younger adult,” she said.

Pals commit to sending one to two letters each month. Upon signing up, participants receive writing prompts for inspiration.

So far, people have written about things that have kept them happy and healthy during the pandemic, including favourite walking paths and time spent with pets, Friesen said.

Friesen wants the project to squash stigma around the North End and Point Douglas by giving people from other neighbourhoods a chance to get to know the residents.

The program will run until the fall.

city.desk@freepress.mb.ca

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