Taos elders find lost joy in receiving and writing letters

Taos Academy youth direct a letter-writing campaign to seniors in seclusion

By Amy Boaz ≤br/>forum@taosnews.com
Posted 5/26/20

Pamela Harris, age 75, has a pen pal who is 11. Writing to him during this time of sheltering in place has brought up a lot of memories - "good ones," she said over a …

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Taos elders find lost joy in receiving and writing letters

Taos Academy youth direct a letter-writing campaign to seniors in seclusion

Posted

Pamela Harris, age 75, has a pen pal who is 11. Writing to him during this time of sheltering in place has brought up a lot of memories - "good ones," she said over a phone interview.

In seclusion for many weeks with her husband, both with severe heart conditions, Harris said the first letter from her young writer described his pleasure of playing in the backyard by himself - he has two younger siblings - which reminded Harris of being a child and escaping a house of 16 other kids to play alone in the woods with her dolls. "That was my dollhouse," she said.

"Letter writing has become something of a past activity," said Harris, a former school counselor. "I am glad to see it promoted. I answered the young man - I wrote him back and told him about something in my childhood that connected with him."

The letter-writing campaign to elders is part of Taos Academy's service-oriented community outreach class directed by H. Warren Kelly. Also dean of students, Kelly has taught the seventh-eighth grade 21st Century Leadership class over the last three years.

Taos Academy specializes in teaching via online technology.

This year was different. "The quarantine put pretty severe restrictions on the way we usually hold class," Kelly wrote in an email. "We managed to meet via video conference at our regular times and maintained excellent attendance. I would say that the letter-writing campaign to elders in the community was my best attempt at embodying the service goals of the class. In addition, it embraced the idea that we all can do something to control the effects of isolation in our lives and improve our own lives and our 'mood.'"

The targeted pen pal audience would be the Taos Elders and Neighbors Together and those at the Taos Living Center. Mariebella Duran, an eighth-grader at Taos Academy, who is in Kelly's class, described how the process got going by mid-April.

"In this class we like to work with community in different ways," Duran said in a phone interview. "This was actually a big opportunity for us - we decided to write letters to senior citizens of our town. We are the older kids in the class and show examples to the fifth- and sixth-graders … on how to write a letter."

First, the class sent out an anonymous form letter to the Taos Living Center - there are about 20 seventh- and eighth-graders and 20 fifth- and sixth-graders - and then they composed individual letters once they got a list of names of elder volunteers. "We wrote about ourselves and that we're there for them," the elders, said Duran.

Then they wrote to the TENT network, "Individually - we got names of elders - and also opened it up to our family members - so that we got a wide range of different places, as far as Alaska and Colorado and other states."

Duran wrote about five letters so far and got two responses. What did Duran and others say in their letters?

"I opened up about my life and family and what I want to do when I grow up," said Duran. And what did she hear in response? "One elder was from Switzerland and talked about her life and her languages and music was a big part of her life, and I am also a musician."

Tracy Ivy, the activities director at Taos Living Center, spoke about the joy the letters brought to the now-sheltered residents for whom the visiting children - when they could visit - were their greatest pleasure.

"Despite the age difference," said Ivy, in a phone interview, "the themes in the letters [the elders and students share] were the same: I miss my family, I miss my friends, I miss hanging out."

Ivy helps manage three or four of the residents' responses and noted that students from ages 6 to 14 in other schools in Río Ranchos and even in Albuquerque send letters. Her own children, aged 10, 12 and 14, are enthusiastically involved.

"I really hope when this is all over, that they get to meet," said Ivy. "Like pen pals who meet after the war."

Yvonne Hayes is 93, a former schoolteacher in Michigan, who lives in a house in Taos with her daughter. Her pen pal is a junior at Taos Academy with beautiful handwriting and plans to go into the arts.

Hayes sees the letter-writing exchange "as a wonderful opportunity for students to be in contact with older people. So many kids don't have contact with grandparents--for me as a child an older person was always around--but it is a way to get to know a person as a person and who hopefully has some wisdom."

"In all," noted Taos Academy's teacher Kelly, "I would wager that 150 letters may have been written over the last month or so. And I should say, these are paper letters, in envelopes, with correct addresses, and what ... stamps? It goes without saying that getting personal paper mail is a joy in our lives. Many kids have received letters in return - which is a service to them."

Said his student Duran, "Even though Mr. Kelly's class is over I am going continue writing back 'cause it's great to collab with community and our seniors - who have expressed they are very grateful, very glad to hear from youth and glad people are there for them."

And she added, "It's nice to be off technology and communicate in a different way."

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