A few months ago, I discovered this amazing nonprofit organization, From Me To You Letters, which allows people to write uplifting, anonymous letters to people suffering from cancer in England. I heard about them from one of my all time favorite podcasts, The Allusionist, hosted by the amazingly witty Helen Zaltzman. (It’s no secret, I have a massive “friendcrush” on her. I definitely recommend you check it out, if you like words, and language, and quirky, offbeat humor.)
As someone who used to have scores of pen pals as a child, back in that distant epoch known as the nineties, when people actually used snail mail for things other than bills and insurance, I was instantly drawn to the idea of writing handwritten letters to strangers. I miss writing letters. There’s something so personal about seeing the way someone forms letters, the little doodles in the margins, the choice of stationary… All of it is appealing to me.
From me to You letters takes that concept, and adds a secret ingredient: altruism. I shamefully admit that I’ve never done much in the realm of volunteer work, aside from working the door at improv shows, or helping to organize a festival or two, but the feeling that you’re doing something helpful and unselfish for someone in need is truly uplifting.
It just so happened that I wasn’t having the best day myself, the day I decided to write my own “From Me to You” letter. There had been some unpleasant events in my personal life, recently. As I walked home from the bus, brooding, I passed my favorite San Francisco bookstore, and the idea occurred to me to stop in and buy a stationary set, sit in the dog park, and write a letter or two.
Three hours of sunshine later, I’d completed six letters and did indeed feel better. The website tells you to focus on positive things, no matter how mundane, and that’s what I did. I wrote about my work, and how much I love my students, and happy memories, like when my parents first adopted their dog. The combination of nice weather and positive thinking really did the trick, and I was eager to send my letters off, and hopeful that I was making a difference in the life of whoever received them.
That positive feeling stuck with me for a few days, and then I had an idea…
I’m an ESL teacher. Generally speaking, my students, who are all international adults from all around the world, mumble and groan at the prospect of having to write in English, particularly if I’m asking for a whole page! (God forbid!) Often, they’ll put it a minimum effort. After all, it’s only going to be graded and given back. It’s not that important, right?
It occurred to me that if they knew their letter would be read by a stranger, and particularly one in search of comfort, they just might approach the assignment differently.
The next Friday, I brought a stack of colored notebook paper to class with me, and introduced the idea of From Me to You Letters. We began with discussions in small groups: “What’s the difference between receiving a handwritten letter and a text?” “Have you ever been through a difficult time in your life? What made you feel better?” “What are the top three most positive things in your life right now?”
Soon, it was time to begin the letters. Because none of them are native speakers, I made sure they wrote their first drafts on scratch paper, so that I’d have the opportunity to correct any grammar or vocabulary mistakes. I was absolutely delighted by the results. Unlike their usual, scribbled responses to prompts, these letters were thoughtful, caring, and intentional. I was so proud!
The next day, I collected the final drafts of the letters and gathered them to be sent off. I also forwarded my lesson plan to my boss, who loved the concept, and wanted to share it with other teachers in our school, should they want to participate.
Since then, I’ve been eagerly searching for other, similar organizations. (As far as I know, there’s nothing similar here in the States.)
I’m eager to do this project all over again, when my class changes and I receive new students, in a few weeks. And for my part, I’ve continued writing letters on my own. I’ll never get to see the reactions of the recipients, but that’s okay. I’m happy to have helped, and proud to have transmitted that joy to my students.