Schools in Croydon are using the art of letter writing to help bridge the gap between generations and tackle loneliness during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic as part of a new pen pal initiative from local education and care charity John Whitgift Foundation.

The pen pal project asks schoolchildren who are now learning from home to write letters, stories, poems and drawings detailing everything from their family and school life to holiday memories and favourite pets. The letters are then shared with elderly residents at John Whitgift Foundation’s care homes to help bring a smile to their faces and provide some welcome relief from the loneliness of social isolation. Residents who are able to have also put pen to paper and sent replies to the children, expressing their delight at receiving the surprise letters and sharing their own stories.

The children have found all manner of subjects to talk about with their elderly pen pals, with a common theme of missing school and the teachers, their friends and even their minibus driver. The younger generation also shared recommendations for things to do during lockdown, such as keeping a dream journal and using Skype or FaceTime to stay connected with people. As well as funny anecdotes and fond memories being shared on both sides, extracts from the letters show both generations united in the shared hope that normality will return soon:

“I understand that during this time we are all a bit lost, worried and concerned. I am not sure about you but I am also extremely bored. I prefer to be at school because I get the chance to ask for help and see my friends every day.”
Diya, Old Palace of John Whitgift School

“During this terrible time, I know you might be feeling a bit lonely, so I have written an autobiography about my life to give you some comfort. I hope you enjoy it and hopefully feel a bit better.”
Sayyida, Old Palace of John Whitgift School

“My name is Aaliyah and I am a student at Old Palace of John Whitgift School and wanted to take the opportunity to write to you while we are all stuck inside rather a lot. My favourite holiday was when we went to Tanzania on safari and met all the wonderful creatures from a hippo to a cocrock, from a giraffe to a snake.  We were glamping in the safari, and we heard a beautiful sound. We actually woke up to the sound of exotic birds.”
Aaliyah, Old Palace of John Whitgift School 

“Thank you so much for all your letters we are pleased that you are thinking of us at this difficult time. We enjoyed reading all about you, your hobbies and what you are doing. I am keeping occupied with my hobbies, lots of sewing and reading. Although we can’t go out, we can ring people up and at least we can be sure of finding everyone at home!”
Margaret, Whitgift Care resident

“We are all well and being looked after. Now the sun is shining we can go for a walk around the grounds. The spring flowers are so pretty and the leaves are coming out on the trees. I have lived in Croydon since I was a little girl, it has changed so much. I used to watch Crystal Palace football. It is a strange time but it will get better soon and we can see you all again.”
Pat, Whitgift Care resident

“Thank you for your letters. I live in a flat by myself and have a lot of friends who live in the other flats. I am 84 years old and have 4 sons. Having the Internet means I can see all my sons on Skype. I won’t draw you a picture because I’m not very good at drawing!”
Margaret, Whitgift Care resident

Official guidance from the Government and Public Health England (PHE) has called for schools and childcare providers across the UK to close, and the elderly and vulnerable to self-isolate for twelve weeks to help control the spread of the virus.

From Monday 23rd March, John Whitgift Foundation’s three schools; Old Palace of John Whitgift, Trinity and Whitgift, transitioned to e-learning and will continue to deliver education to pupils at home through online teaching platforms during the period of closure.

Year 6 and 7 pupils at Old Palace and Whitgift School have been keeping busy during home learning, with over 40 letters sent to residents as part of the project so far. Local school Oakwood Primary has also joined in the initiative, sending a collection of children’s handwritten letters and drawings for residents to enjoy.

Meanwhile at Trinity School, students have been getting creative with a community art project, sending a mixture of text and images on postcards to the care homes, to start a ‘visual conversation’ with residents. Residents will then be invited to respond with their own images and writing, with the school hoping to display some of the work produced in a future exhibition.

Whitgift Care, part of John Whitgift Foundation, cares for over one hundred elderly people in three care homes; Whitgift House, Wilhelmina House and the Whitgift Almshouses. Care staff in the homes are working hard to keep residents safe and well during these unprecedented times and finding ways to stay in touch with loved ones is crucial to keeping spirits up.

Staff are helping residents harness the power of technology to communicate with family and friends, using iPads to connect with loved ones through a screen. However, there is still something very special about receiving a letter through the post, and this more traditional means of communication can bring a sense of comfort and familiarity to the older generation.

Mariyana Nesheva, Senior Care Officer, Whitgift Care, said: “The letters we have received from the children are wonderful and have really brought a smile to our residents’ faces at this very difficult time. Actually, I told them beforehand that we were expecting letters from the children and everyone got very excited! Thank you so much for sending them, our residents are so grateful and happy when they receive their letters. You and your students are amazing!”

Martin Corney, Chief Executive, John Whitgift Foundation, said: “The pen pal project is a fantastic initiative which has brought a true sense of joy to our residents’ lives during this period of uncertainty. It is wonderful to see the younger and older generations coming together and sharing stories, which really brings together two strands of what we do as a charity so well. I would like to thank the teachers and pupils at Old Palace and Oakwood Primary School for reaching out to our residents during these difficult times.”