Lockdown pen pals: staying connected in a disconnected world

Written by Hannah Richardson

“There is a loneliness in this world so great you can see it in the slow movements of the hands of a clock.” The words of Charles Bukowski, the German-American poet, have never felt as relevant as they do now, seven weeks into England’s third COVID-19 lockdown.

Yet, out of this loneliness have emerged tales of human compassion and community care that prove, even in times as dark as these, there is always a light to be found. Such was the case with the story of Muriel and Mathilda which has touched the hearts of people in Sheffield and throughout the country.

Muriel and Mathilda

Credit: SCCCC

Muriel, 90, and Mathilda, 7, are unlikely friends but, thanks to the SCCCC’s Pen Pal Scheme, they have become just that. The pair have been sending cards back and forth since May last year when Mathilda’s mum saw the SCCCC’s call for people to get involved with the scheme.

“You can always tell when something comes for Muriel from Mathilda because it’s got all sorts of lovely colourful bits that fall out and go everywhere,” said Tammy Wilson, 42, Good Neighbour Team Leader for SCCCC, a charity supporting people over 65 in Sheffield.

Muriel and Mathilda are not the only people who have been touched by this scheme. Laughing, Ms Wilson detailed a recent phone call she received from a delighted recipient:

“There was this lady who rang me, and she said ‘I’ve got to ring you, I’ve got this card through the post today and it is beautiful. I mean, it’s not just beautiful, it’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anything quite so beautiful in my life. I’ve told my carer she’s to go get me a frame because I am framing it and it’s going on my living room wall.’”

For Ms Wilson, this captured the heart of the scheme perfectly. To get a response like that, where a card has not just cheered someone up, but has meant so much to them that it is going to be the centre of their living room, underlines just how vital these points of connection are.

Loneliness and isolation have become key themes over the last year as concerns have arisen over the impact of long-term social restrictions on mental health. A November survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation found 24% of adults had felt lonely in the two weeks prior to the survey.

However, Ms Wilson pointed out that these feelings are the everyday reality for many of their clients and had been long before any of us had ever heard of Coronavirus:

“When we bear in mind that the people who are referred to us for support are always in the situation that the whole nation has been in for the last year, I think it’s given people a much bigger understanding of how some people actually live their entire existence.”

The suspension of face-to-face support by the charity has only deepened this loneliness for many of their clients. Ms Wilson explained that the scheme is for anyone who just wants “a bit of happy post”.

A collection of cards drawn by Sheffield children

Credit: SCCCC

Happy post seems to be the key here, with a message as simple as “I’m thinking of you” being enough to make someone’s day. This was certainly the case for Leanne, 76, who said she could not contain her emotions upon receiving her post:

“The letter arrived at a perfect time, I had been feeling very depressed and the letter had made me cry.  It showed that there’s someone out there who doesn’t know me but still cares.

“It made a big difference to me and helped me to get out of my hole. All the money in the world couldn’t have made me as happy as that letter did.”

What started out as a local scheme has since taken off nationally and has even reached the international stage, with letters and cards coming in from Greece and as far away as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the United States.

Ms Wilson explained the response has been more than the charity could have hoped for when they started the scheme. She was particularly delighted so many of the local schools had thrown themselves into the project, as well as students from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University.

Bethany School is one of those which has encouraged their students to take part. As part of their Catholic ethos, they believe that compassion and serving others are crucial human values. For them, the opportunity to foster within their students an understanding of those within the community who might be struggling is as vital a part of their education as maths or science.

Sarah Walker, the School Administrator, said: “We hope that becoming aware of needs and showing small acts of kindness to others like this help to equip our pupils to become good citizens in the future. Some of them are still corresponding with the recipients of the mail now which is great.”

It could not be easier to get involved. Cards and letters should be sent to: SCCCC Pen Pal Scheme, Unit 19, President Buildings, Savile Street East, Sheffield, S4 7UQ. From there, they will be posted on to the recipient the charity thinks most suitable.

Contributors can choose between a one-off piece of post, or if they wish to start a long-term correspondence, they should include their full name and address on a separate piece of paper which will then be inputted into a secure database.

Ms Wilson said they have one dedicated member of staff who screens the post to make sure no sensitive or offensive details get sent on but added that this will be the only person who reads the post.

To protect all those involved, SCCCC advises those sending in post to only include their first name in the card or letter.

Written by Hannah Richardson

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