Cards and letters can’t take the place of a face-to-face conversation and they don’t have the immediacy of phone calls or Zoom chats, but they do have one advantage: They can be kept as cherished reminders that someone cares.
That’s the idea behind FVRLibraries’ Letters to Seniors program, which has been spreading handmade and heartfelt love to seniors in care facilities and nursing homes since December 2020. Sherry Braga, the library district’s volunteer coordinator, developed the program to let isolated seniors know that they’re remembered and appreciated while providing a safe way for volunteers to contribute their time. The program is still going strong, having delivered nearly 2,500 cards to residents of 12 care facilities in Clark, Skamania and Klickitat counties.
“It was much more successful than I ever even dreamed,” Braga said. “I had a lot of people that were tired of being home and they asked, ‘What can I do to help?’ I thought, ‘We’ll try it and see if there’s interest.’ I was just blown away with how many people were sending cards.”
Before the pandemic, between 1,500 and 1,600 volunteers offered their help to a variety of library programs, Braga said, putting in a combined 32,000 hours of labor per year. Many of these volunteers were still more than eager to help during the pandemic; they just needed something to do safely at home.
“That’s what the library is about. We help others. We provide resources and connections,” Braga said. “We love helping people. We do a lot of that through providing information, through print and digital and all of those ways, but this is another way we can help others through this difficult time in the history of the world.”
The program is especially meaningful for Braga, whose parents moved into a care facility during the pandemic. Even though the library district had provided services to local nursing homes, such as free craft activity kits and mobile library visits, Braga saw firsthand that some residents felt lost or forgotten.
“A lot of the seniors didn’t understand that the pandemic was happening. They just didn’t know why people weren’t coming to visit them. You’re a little bit removed from the world’s happenings in a care facility,” Braga said. “You can only watch so much TV. The experience kits and the cards gave them something else to do that is also good for the brain and produces good feelings.”
The cards and craft kits really made an impact on the residents at Van Mall Senior Living, said the facility’s program supervisor Destiny Gordon, especially during the long months of 2020.
“We received letters and cards on major holidays — Christmas, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day — and they all just delighted our residents,” Gordon said.
When residents could leave their rooms, they’d show their cards to each other, she said. The cards made new residents feel special, Gordon said, while for others, it was a physical reminder that they mattered.
“I’d say, ‘Hey, I have something for you,’ and their eyes would light up,” Gordon said. “It could be just a simple saying in the card, but it’s the idea that, ‘Hey, someone’s thinking of me.’ ”
The cards reflect seasonal or holiday themes and contain simple, encouraging phrases; the library offers a list of suggestions, like “We’re thinking of you,” or “Have a great fall.” Every card is signed, “Your library friend.” Braga said that volunteers appreciate the program’s flexibility and creativity. Cards can be made anywhere, any time, using whatever is at hand — construction paper and crafty odds and ends, buttons, pictures from magazines, fabric and felt, sewing notions, ribbon, dried flowers, tissue paper, even cut-up bits from other cards. It’s fun as a solo activity but it’s also a memorable family activity.
Erika Albright’s 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, signed up for the Letters to Seniors program in 2020, but the whole family participated in card-making.
“It was all five of us, my husband and our three kids, and we did them as a family,” Erika Albright of Vancouver said.
Albright said that even the family’s rescue dog, Maple, helped out by serving as inspiration for Sophie’s extra-artful cards. Albright appreciates how card-making brought the family together and got them talking and laughing. Sophie is now a freshman at a Seattle-area art college, but Albright cherishes the family memories.
“It was something we could do with conversation,” Albright said. “It was a time of connection where none of us were engaged in anything else, just the project we were working on.”
Vancouver resident Aron Clark Joslin’s preschool-age children started making cards in February with their grandmother, Ellen Joslin, who watched the kids during the day while Clark Joslin was at work. Though Clark Joslin didn’t make any cards himself, he thought it would be a perfect way for his then-5-year-old son, Erik, to get a head start on kindergarten skills.
Since Clark Joslin’s mother, 67, is a retired early education specialist, he figured it was a win-win.
“She went down to the dollar store and picked up a bunch of supplies,” Clark Joslin said.
Erik’s younger sister Emily, who turned 3 in March, helped by painting glitter onto the cards. Erik is now a few weeks into kindergarten and “he’s done an excellent job cutting on the lines, so apparently our practice paid off,” Clark Joslin quipped.
Braga said that the Letters to Seniors program welcomes volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, and no crafting or art experience is necessary.
Completed cards can be dropped into any FVRLibraries book return, attention Sherry Braga/Letters to Seniors. If you’re ready to make some cards, email Braga at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-906-5075.