This time of year is a busy one for the Royal Mail – cards and parcels all needing to be delivered before Christmas. The rattle of the letterbox and the sounds of cards falling onto the carpet is one most people look forward too: but often with age the number of cards decrease as people lose touch or death reduces the number of friends and so a visit from the postie become less frequent. And it’s not just older people who can feel lonely at this time of year, students too can feel alone, especially if a long way from home.
Writing Back is a volunteer, letter-writing project that matches University of Leeds students as pen pals with older, Yorkshire residents. Founded by Dr Georgina Binnie in 2014, the scheme also aims to shed new light on loneliness in people of different age groups.
Georgina was inspired to set up the project after volunteering at a local care home and teaching students at the University. She recognised that loneliness wasn’t only confined to the care home’s residents; instead, many of the students that she taught also sometimes felt homesick and expressed a desire to better connect with the community.
From an initial group of 28 participants, the scheme has grown to include 45 Faculty of Arts, Language and Cultures undergraduate students, 45 international postgraduate students and 71 older participants. Some of the project’s older pen pals write to more than one student and many have taken part in the project for several years!
Dr Georgina told us: “Our undergraduate students enjoy writing letters and often find that corresponding with an older member of the community helps them to settle into life in Leeds. For our international postgraduate students, most of whom are new to the UK, writing to a Yorkshire resident can allow them to engage in rich cultural exchanges, sharing thoughts and traditions with their older partners.”
Our Undergraduate Students say…
Anna: “This has been really fun, my pen pal is fab! It made me a lot less scared of speaking to people older than me as I realised we have a lot in common. And that I should be confident about myself because I do have things to say to someone who has had a longer life than me”.
Our International Postgraduate Students say…
Beatrice: “Being a part of the Writing Back project has been one of the highlights of my life here at Leeds. Since the beginning of the project, my impression of older people in Yorkshire specifically has changed as they have given me an insight into British culture from their perspective. Thank you for this opportunity!”
Our Older Pen Pals say…
Margaret T: “I have enjoyed writing to and receiving letters from my international penfriend. Her view of the world is so much broader than mine and her command of English and neatness of handwriting put me to shame! Despite her extensive travels I detect that she may miss home and family and I try to provide a warm “surrogate granny” experience for her. The impact on my life is that once again I am in touch with young people and I love to feel part of the modern world”.
Margaret A: “An enjoyable experience and a lovely learning curve for older citizens and their students. I have two students at present and a post grad who still keeps in touch. Have I learned much from them? One of my students and I now have a greater understanding of our respective faiths and that is for the good. Writing letters may be out of date but each one of my pen friends have said the same to me, that the letter on the mat is special and thrilling”.
Dr Georgina Binnie, G.E.Binnie@leeds.ac.uk
Pen pals are matched up with one another based on common interests and hobbies and letters are exchanged via Georgina at the University. Contact isn’t only confined to paper; students and older members have the chance to meet up with one another in person at bi-annual lunch events, which are always extremely popular. You can watch a video of some of the pen pals meeting for the first time here.
Despite an age-gap of 60+ years between many of the pen pals, participants soon find that friendships develop. Particularly as Christmas approaches, putting pen to paper can have a real impact.
Georgina works with Neighbourhood Networks and charities from across Yorkshire to find older letter writers. Older pen pals can also self-refer to the project by contacting Georgina on 0113 343 6189, emailing G.E.Binnie@leeds.ac.uk or writing to Writing Back, School of English, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.