9 March 2021

The write stuff: Pen pal project to link Canberrans young and old

| Michael Weaver
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Girl writing a letter to a friend.

A Canberra project to rejuvenate letter writing is connecting school children with the elderly. Photo: Region Media

The lost art of letter writing is being reinvigorated in Canberra through a program that will take students away from their laptops and connect them with isolated elderly people in the community.

The Intergenerational Pen Pal Project will see about 50 students from Ainslie Primary School put pens to paper via a project involving community group Northside ACT, the University of Canberra, the Council on the Ageing ACT, and a group of elderly residents who will soon have good reason to check their letterboxes.

The project received a $10,000 grant from the ACT Government’s 2020-2021 Seniors Grant Program and Veterans Grant Program to help with evaluation and resources, as well as an exhibition featuring the correspondence, where students will meet their new pen pals.

Northside ACT executive director Kate Wisbey says the pilot program could be rolled out to wider sections of the community following evaluation by researchers from the University of Canberra, who have been interested in similar projects around the world.

“This kind of project is exciting regardless of your age, when someone is making the effort to write a letter or draw a picture, or send something in the post in this world of instant gratification and instant messaging,” Kate tells Region Media.

“It’s all about taking a great method of communication from a generation who really did rely on letters and introducing it meaningfully to children so they can also enjoy the pleasure of connecting with someone.”

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She says the pen pal project will help older people overcome feelings of social isolation which have been especially prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What a thrill it will be when students from Ainslie Primary School finally get to meet their older pen pals at the end of the three-month project,” says Kate.

Northside ACT, a community-based, not-for-profit organisation that was established in 1976, had been looking for a way of connecting older Canberrans with a younger generation in a meaningful way.

Kate says the project is by no means unique, but highlights what can be done by helping older people feel new again.

“This is about thinking outside the square a little bit, and sometimes the methods that have become a lost art form are some of the most enjoyable,” she says. “Even without the effects of COVID-19, this project is still going to be important.

“We’re really proud of this project and we believe it will be a great community-led initiative with our elderly members of the community at the forefront.”

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The Intergenerational Pen Pal Project is one of 18 to be awarded almost $140,000 of funding through the Seniors Grant Program and Veterans Grant Program.

Other projects include a filmmaking workshop, PlayStations for seniors and a leatherwork workshop.

ACT Assistant Minister for Families and Community Services Emma Davidson said a second round of grants will provide an additional $10,000 in Seniors’ Grants and $10,400 in Veterans’ Grants.

“Both grant programs fund projects that support the wellbeing, social inclusion and connection of seniors, veterans and their families,” she said. “These grants are so important to help people have a voice, feel valued and part of their communities.”

Course providing organisation The Cuppacumbalong Foundation also welcomed the funding, saying it will deliver a program of leatherwork for Australian Defence Force veterans with young families in Canberra.

“The funding will provide great opportunities for Canberra Defence families to spend quality creative time together to create an heirloom,” said Alexandra Wass, executive director of The Cuppacumbalong Foundation. “It will be a lovely day for families to come together in a safe environment and have a shared experience.”

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