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Student-Pensioner Pen Pals Tackle Loneliness Awareness

Leeds College of Building

A group of students at Leeds College of Building (@WeAre_LCB) has made an unlikely connection with care-home residents after becoming recent pen pals.

The students, studying GCSE English alongside vocational construction trade programmes, took part in a pilot scheme with two care homes in the community, Priestley Care Home in Birstall and Sure Care North Leeds.

The initiative involved students writing to the pensioners to alleviate the isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic while positively improving literacy. Residents had the opportunity to respond and keep the dialogue going between students that chose to participate. 

Sarah Heaton, English lecturer at Leeds College of Building, said:

“During the first lockdown, I saw heart-breaking stories on local news coming out of care homes. There were such desperate tales about how isolated residents were while relatives cried outside, unable to visit. I then read some news from the US about a school doing a pen pal initiative there. Everyone in the scheme gained something. It struck a chord, so I started some research about alienation and wellbeing.

“We wove this pen pal pilot into our blended learning scheme for GCSE English with cultural and empathetic elements. We had such rich conversations in class and focussed units on creative writing skills. After pitching the idea to the Head of Department, we got the green light to run the pen pal pilot. We created a Microsoft Teams page for class discussions and a resource pack with prompts and templates. For some students, this was the first letter they had ever written.”

Students from some of the most deprived areas of Leeds wrote over 30 letters to care home residents. After some delays owing to COVID-19 and quarantining post, students started to get replies.

Zara Dupont (17), a Plastering student at Leeds College of Building, said:
“I really enjoyed taking part in the pen pal initiative. It was really rewarding, knowing we were making a difference in such terrible times.”

Fellow Plastering student, Ben Pratt (16), said:
It’s great that the residents were able to respond and tell us about themselves and their experiences and that they loved our letters so much.”

The letters mark national Loneliness Awareness Week (14-18 June 2021). The annual campaign raises awareness of loneliness and gets people to discuss the topic. Last year, 271.5 million people were reached through the campaign, and 20,000 charities, organisations, companies, and individuals were involved online.

Sarah continued:

“There’s something special about getting a personal, physical letter. The vetted correspondence was really uplifting. Students asked residents questions, told them about their vocational courses, hopes for the future, and lockdown coping skills. One student talked about how they’d redecorated their own house and another how they’d sewn their own clothes. This project has been extremely rewarding and enriching. I’m extremely proud of our students who all loved taking part.”

A spokesperson at Priestley Care Home, said:

“The pen pal initiative between Priestley and Leeds College of Building has been a big boost to our residents. The letters have helped alleviate some of the loneliness that the residents have felt during this past twelve months. The letters have allowed our residents to feel connected to the outside world”

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