As Western students prepared to write final exams this semester, many took time to write letters first.
Their messages will soon be read by local seniors, thanks to a project spearheaded by second-year psychology student Valerie Ah-Yen and Letters & Smiles, an initiative started by third-year science students Sirisha Ravipati and Nandini Vyas.
As an executive member of Change for X Western, Ah-Yen was tasked with selecting a local charity to help with fundraising and awareness in 2020-21.
“I chose Letters & Smiles because their mission was inspiring, and they were getting a whole community of students involved,” Ah-Yen said. She also liked that Ravipati and Vyas were using their charity to help lessen the loneliness resulting from strict COVID-19 protocols.
“With the recent pandemic locking down senior homes for the safety of their residents, we know facing this virus can be hard for those completely isolated from their family,” Ravipati explained.
“And we hope someone writing a letter can bring a smile and, hopefully, ease feelings of loneliness,” added Vyas.
Taking up their cause, Ah-Yen applied for a federal #RisingYouth grant, and just as she was starting to study for exams she got word that she’d been awarded $750 to create gift packages to accompany some of the letters.
“It was great news — and a little bit stressful,” she laughed. “I had a week to plan everything. It was very chaotic and rushed.”
As Ah-Yen approached local seniors’ residences, and sourced gifts within her budget, she used social media to put out the call for letters. She also rallied her friends, as well as residence and charity Sophs, to help spread the word. Within five days she’d rounded up 80 letters.
She was impressed not only by the response, but by the content of the letters: “They span from jokes to funny stories from their childhoods, or their favourite Christmas memories, to very inspiring and motivational messages,” she said.
Ah-Yen feels students are inspired by the project because they’re feeling the effects of the pandemic themselves, and missing their grandparents. “A lot of them can’t see their grandparents right now, and it’s especially hard during the holiday season.”
More than 60 of the letters. along with gift packages containing traditional Christmas crackers, a (sanitized) holiday mug and a treat, will be delivered to Masonville Manor retirement home on Saturday.
“I’m trying to support local business, so with that in mind we are getting some fresh gingerbread cookies from Black Walnut Café,” Ah-Yen said. “Everything will be packaged nicely with fake snow, and we’ll make it look very festive.”
With more letters than gift packages, she plans to distribute the rest of the letters to other long-term care facilities including Chartwell London, Revera McGarrell Place and Amica London.
“I’m glad to give out more letters because they’re really beautiful,” she said. “And I think a lot of different seniors will love reading them.”