Chapel Hill middle schoolers and older adults write to each other to combat pandemic loneliness
By Claire Delano | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Facing another stretch of at-home instruction back in September 2020, Raquel Harris, an English language arts (ELA) teacher at Culbreth Middle School, realized her seventh grade students could use some connection. Her neighbor Dr. Donna Miller, the medical director at Carolina Meadows retirement community, also saw the toll the pandemic was taking on her residents. “We got to talking about how great it would be if my lonely students and her lonely residents could help one another during the pandemic’s restrictiveness,” Raquel says. Soon, they had an idea: what if the middle schoolers and Carolina Meadows residents became pen pals?
Raquel’s ELA co-teacher, Linda Kroger, had her seventh grade class join the project, bringing the total to more than 200 students. From there, each student was paired with a resident. “The volunteers at Carolina Meadows did an amazing job of matching each child to an adult who shared similar interests or had a connection in some way,” Raquel says.
Carolina Meadows resident Greg Olley became interested in the pen pal program when the community sent emails requesting participation. “When I saw the second announcement indicating that more volunteers were needed, I thought I should volunteer,” he says. “I thought, perhaps I could learn something about the life of contemporary middle schoolers. They have a reputation for being difficult. I really did not know if I would connect with my pen pal. I thought it had a definite upside, and if it fizzled, at least it was worth a try.”
Luckily, Greg and his pen pal, Joshua Bosworth, did form a connection over their love of animals and family. The two stay in contact today, even now that Joshua is in eighth grade. “Even if we don’t email each other as frequently as we used to … I am excited whenever I see an email from [Greg], and I’m sure he has the same feelings,” Joshua says. Greg agrees that the emails were more than just a school project. “I don’t think that either of us viewed the letters as an assignment,” Greg says. “It was a way to learn and to make a new friend.”
Culbreth student Raine Honeycutt was nervous about the project at first, but she found her perfect match in Bette-Burr Fenley, who shares her love of books. “I’m 98% sure that’s [why we were matched], since no one else would be able to stand my lengthy conversations of how deeply devoted I was to morally gray characters,” Raine laughs.
Bette-Burr says that the experience was “eye-opening,” especially since Raine is a “lively, talented writer. … I hope the adventure continues!” Raine also hopes to maintain their friendship and “to see [Bette-Burr] … in person once COVID has finally lifted.”
For the 2021-2022 school year, a new group of seventh graders was paired with Carolina Meadows residents. “As opposed to last year, we are going to write physical letters, so [there is a] tangible gift both parties can hold and keep,” Raquel says.
After the positive feedback from last year’s participants, she’s excited to start the project again and bring these two communities closer together. “I really believe that if reading through hundreds of letters is what I am called to give my attention to this year, it will be well worth it to have helped cultivate multigenerational friendships.”