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Intergenerational Pen Pal Program Brings Local Students and Residents Together

As a sophomore at Valley Regional High School, Hannah Clark began serving Essex Meadows as a waitress in the Food & Beverage department in 2016. She formed lasting friendships and enjoyed her comradery with the residents at Essex Meadows. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought Hannah home from college at Roger Williams University last spring, she saw it as a chance to, as she says, turn change into opportunity.

“When quarantine began in late March, many of my high school classmates returned home,” Hannah said. “I was in a unique position, having worked at Essex Meadows, to understand that college students and residents were feeling the same way – lonely, isolated and bored.”

Hannah collaborated with Susan Carpenter, Director of Community Life Services, to enlist residents at Essex Meadows to participate in what she coined an Intergenerational Pen Pal Program. Hannah used text message, Instagram and word of mouth to recruit her high school classmates to take part. In total, 40 people, 20 residents and 20 students, joined the program.

“When life slowed down, it made so many of us reflect,” Hannah said. “Life never shuts down, so the fact that it did made us, as college students, think about how we want to live life. Many of us knew that the residents at Essex Meadows have led successful lives to be able to retire comfortably. This was an opportunity for us to gain perspective during this pinnacle time.”

And the residents at Essex Meadows were more than happy to engage with college students during the height of the pandemic and beyond.

Susan “Todd” Jackson, and her husband Bill, have lived at Essex Meadows for just over two years. As a former elementary school and special education teacher and retired learning specialist at Bank Street Graduate School, Todd has a special interest in connecting with children and young adults. Up until the onset of the pandemic, Todd continued to work in New York and continues to serve on the Children’s Book Committee, where she oversees the Young Reviewers Program, a program that encourages children from around the country to review books from Bank Street.

A life-long learner, Todd was excited about the opportunity to connect with her pen pal, Emma, through letters.

“When she introduced herself to me, she had very interesting things to share,” Todd said. “She lost her father on 9/11, she shared with me when she got a new puppy [a French Bulldog named Daisy] and what going back to college was like. I enjoyed comparing our experiences. For example, when going to college, Emma shared how they were furnishing her room. When I went to college in 1957, I traveled from California to Smith College in Massachusetts with only a suitcase. And I had never visited campus!”

Emma, a 2018 graduate of Valley Regional High School, is now attending Auburn University in Alabama. She is majoring in management, and minoring in Human Resources. When her friend, Hannah, reached out to her about the program, Emma jumped at the opportunity to get involved with the residents at Essex Meadows.

“I thought this was an opportunity to make someone else feel good and give the residents something to look forward to,” Emma said. “I was very excited to get to know Todd, especially through a written format. At my age, we mostly use text to communicate, so I also enjoyed getting something in the mail every week.”

Both Emma and Todd hope to continue their pen pal correspondence and one day meet in-person.

“I was impressed by Emma’s interest in connecting with me through letters,” Todd said. “She had plenty of other things on her plate, so it was especially meaningful that she took the time to write.”

Thank you to all of our Intergenerational Pen Pal participants for making this program a success!