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A Global Network of Pen Pals Creates Connection During the Pandemic

By Alex Veeneman
a row of parking meters

Story published on: March 26, 2021

In journalism, there are six questions that are at the core of every story - who, what, when, where, why and how. When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global health pandemic one year ago this month, those six questions became some of the most commonly asked questions by Minnesotans whose routines were upended overnight.

The questions varied:
How long will Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order last?
What is my child’s school doing about learning?
Why are my calls to unemployment not being answered?
How can I keep going with what feels like the whole world crumbling around me?

Day after day on social media, I watched my friends and colleagues in the Twin Cities work to make sense of these unforeseen changes, as the lines between professional lives and personal lives became even more intertwined. As that occurred, people throughout the state and across the nation were making it their mission to help their fellow citizens cope - from making sure their physical and emotional needs were taken care of each day.

One of them was Rachel Syme - a journalist based in New York City. After finding solace from her own feelings of isolation by writing to friends and family about life in the Big Apple on an old typewriter, she had an idea. Through a system designed as a Secret Santa exchange and heavy promotion on social media, she created #penpalooza, a pen-pal letter-writing initiative on a global scale, and it piqued the curiosity of a public in need of feeling connection during a pandemic.

People signed up en masse from every state, every country and a spectrum of occupations  - lawyers, teachers, marketing professionals, graduate students, parents, and journalists, like me, to name a few.

The varied stories in these letters told of human beings adapting to life in the pandemic. A correspondent in Florida wrote about her work, and how she and her team are coping with an entirely new way of working together.

Meanwhile, a correspondent in London wrote about the debate she had about what to tell her friends when she’s asked if she’s taken up any hobbies during the pandemic. She now has an answer – pen pals.

It became clear shortly after it started that #penpalooza involved more than just putting pen to paper. People were sending gifts to each other, including trinkets, vinyl records, stickers, watercolor paintings and photos of their lives. They were telling their stories, showing their vulnerabilities, and they only wanted one thing - to feel connected in a time of so much disconnect.

While Syme has said on Twitter that #penpalooza will likely end this year, she has imparted one of the most important lessons to come from life lived during a global pandemic, something quintessential as many look ahead to life post-pandemic: connection means everything.

Fred Rogers famously said, “Anything that we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service.”

It was a credo for human beings long before this global health pandemic began, and something I experienced firsthand. In 2018, on one of the hottest days of the year, I found myself at a busy intersection in downtown Saint Paul heading to an appointment. I was on my way to meet someone working in the media industry, one I longed to work in, as that industry faced much uncertainty amid economic quagmires and increased competition for jobs.

I was nervous about my prospects and found myself having more questions than answers. It turned out that I didn't need to worry; that hour discussing my career path and some ideas on what to do next provided me with the reassurance I needed. I left that encounter feeling hopeful, knowing that the person that I met cared about the work I was doing.

The mission at the core of Rogers’ quote also applies to people like Syme, who, in a pandemic, wanted to show everyone who applied to join #penpalooza that, although the world around you is changing rapidly, helping advance the needs of your fellow human beings can help create a better world.

The six questions frequently asked during the COVID-19 pandemic - who, what, when, where, why and how - will continue to be asked long after this pandemic is over. The similarities between life pre-pandemic and post-pandemic are yet to be seen.

But Rogers’ words also provide a necessary reminder that connection in our personal and professional lives can propel us forward - be it getting feedback about an idea over a cup of coffee, or writing a letter about daily life to someone and putting it in the mail. It is an opportunity for individuals, no matter their profession or where they live, to advance the world around them by championing their fellow human beings - an opportunity that has even more meaning after life spent in a global pandemic.

On the surface, writing a letter doesn’t seem like much - but that simple act can mean the world to someone. The opportunity to pick up a pen and set words to paper as a way to forge real human connection should neither be taken for granted or wasted - whether you’re a student at the University of Minnesota or a writer in New York City.

The opportunity is yours, and the ball is in your court.

Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist whose work has been seen in publications including Forbes and Rewire, a national online publication produced by TPT. Veeneman is also an active member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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