Pen Pal project connects students with seniors

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First-year Recreation Therapy student Jodi Eberly meets Heidehof resident Hedy Dueck. The two have corresponded via handwritten letters over the last five weeks through the Pen Pal program.

After weeks of exchanging letters, a class of students finally met face-to-face with their pen pals from St. Catharines-based Heidehof Home for the Aged on April 10.

The Pen Pal Social marked the culmination of an inaugural Pen Pal project which paired 60 first-year Recreation Therapy students from the College with 20 seniors from Heidehof. Over a four-week period prior to the social, the students and seniors exchanged hand-written.

Each letter focused on a pillar of well-being: happiness, compassion, diversity and gratitude. The final theme – that of social connectedness – was fulfilled when faculty and students visited their pen pals in person at Heidehof.

“Reading Hedy’s letters made me so anxious to meet her,” first-year Recreation Therapy student Jodi Eberly said of her pen pal. Eberly along with fellow students Morgan Payne and Keesha Ally corresponded through the project with Heidehof resident Hedy Dueck.

“It’s so important to take advantage of the opportunity to make connections with people,” said Ally. “It’s made me fall even more in love with my profession,” echoed Payne.

At the social, students met with their pen pals and engaged in a number of socialization activities, like sharing their favourite foods, childhood experiences, and even playing ‘Never Have I Ever.’

NC Recreation Therapy professor Jaclyn Frail developed and launched the initiative earlier this year as a positive intervention assignment for her Applied Positive Strategies in Therapeutic Recreation class. The aim was for students to demonstrate evidence-based strategies in positive psychology and apply them to the practice of Therapeutic Recreation.

Students were assigned weekly topics to focus their writing on, and completed a pre- and post-test each week related to their assigned topic with the goal of seeing test scores improve after the letter writing exercise. The importance of hand-writing each letter was emphasized, which many students –  who are accustomed to emails – were initially unfamiliar with.

Frail noted that the project has been a “transformative process” for her students which has not only helped them build their skills and apply them in a way that benefits seniors, but to help them find happiness within themselves.

It has also helped students develop compassion; one group of students were deeply moved when their pen pal shared about living through the Second World War in Germany, while another felt deep empathy for a pen pal who shared how lonely he was and how receiving the letters has helped him.

“Students have found this exercise extremely meaningful and I have heard and seen a range of reactions – from excitement about receiving their pen pal letter this week, to deep compassion when they read about their pen pal’s stories,” said Frail. “Both the students and the residents have really embraced the idea of sharing about themselves to a total stranger.”

Heather Vokey, manager of life enrichment services at Heidehof Home for the Aged, said that she was interested in partnering with Niagara College for the Pen Pal project due to her strong belief in inter-generational programming. “There really is more to it than both generations interacting with one another,” she said. “Magic happens when two generations are together.”

She noted that the seniors experience many benefits as a result. The act of letter writing itself – a familiar practice from their past – provides seniors with intellectual and emotional stimulation, while the structure of the content within the letter writing builds a relationship with those involved each week, while promoting empathy, happiness, compassion and gratitude for each other.

Vokey said that residents benefit from the social interaction with the students, and the partnership also promotes feelings of connectedness with the community.

“The residents were eager to read and reply to the students’ letters. They became very engaged in the moment as smiles spread across their faces,” she said.

 

Heidehof resident Mary Reid was one of 20 Heidehof residents who corresponded with students in Niagara College’s Recreation Therapy program over 5 weeks.

 

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