Connecting through letters

Connecting through letters
4-H pen pal project links teens to seniors isolated amid the pandemic
(Photo courtesy of Olivia Preston)
(Photo courtesy of Olivia Preston)

Story by Alayna DeMartini

For a teenager like Olivia Preston, who doesn’t text or play video games and prefers taking notes by hand, becoming a pen pal was a natural fit.

Jean Straley had been recovering from a broken back in a nursing home when Olivia’s letter arrived in her mailbox.

Included with the letter was a photo of 13-year-old Olivia holding her rabbit, Black Beauty. From the letter and photo, Straley got inspired to write stories about the rabbit, which she told in letter after letter.  

Coming up with stories kept her entertained. Bingo had ended soon after the pandemic began. No more card games with neighbors. And meals together turned into people sparsely spread across a dining hall, one person per table, just eating, not talking much. Being so far away kept people from hearing each other.

“It gives me something to do. I don’t like to just sit there and do nothing.”Jean Straley

“I enjoy talking to people, and we couldn’t do much,” Straley said.

Her daughter visited, and so did the women who assisted her a little bit each day, but many hours went by without anyone to talk to.

So Straley conjured up stories about Olivia’s rabbit and detailed them in letters she couldn’t wait to tuck into envelopes and send off.

Last spring, the Ohio 4-H club Olivia is involved in started the project to connect with seniors in Delaware County, during the pandemic.

For Jean Straley, 77, writing to Olivia helped fill the hours when she was recovering from a broken back in a nursing home. (Photo courtesy of Straley)

Most sent one or two letters, but Olivia and Straley were both so excited about hearing from each other that they kept it up. They’re still writing.

“Having something in hand is kind of fun,” said Olivia, who is in seventh grade at Big Walnut Middle School. “The letters had all these different pictures. It was really sweet.”

In one, Olivia said she didn't enter her rabbit in the fair because she didn't want to risk getting COVID. A week or so later, she opened a letter from Straley containing a paper blue ribbon on which Straley had cut out and pasted “Black Beauty #1.” In the story she made up, the rabbit had won after escaping her cage and finding her own way to the fair.  

“It gives me something to do,” said Straley, who is 77. “I don’t like to just sit there and do nothing.” 

And there are only so many puzzles she can do or television shows to watch before monotony kicks in. Letters broke that up. After all, Straley spent most of her life calling people or mailing letters when she couldn’t see them in person. For most of her life, there was no email, texting, or Facebook.

While there is all of that now, Olivia doesn’t really use them. She doesn’t have a cell phone, and though she has an iPad, she’d rather write out notes from classes.

That ease of writing may be why she had no trouble starting the first letter to Straley. Olivia naturally mentioned her rabbit, which she’s had for nearly two years, the sometimes cuddly, sometimes temperamental pet that will thump her foot or bite Olivia’s finger when she’s hungry or discontent for some other reason.

Every letter she wrote, Olivia thought about the possibility that she could be brightening up Straley’s day, even by a bit. And she loved knowing a letter would eventually be on the way to her house detailing another adventure her rabbit had taken.

(4-H is a youth development program run by Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.)