NJ Teens and Seniors Form Bonds in Pandemic Pen-Pal Program

Plus, other New Jerseyans are writing to children in Kenya, Brazil and beyond.

Collage illustration of mail, postage, and people writing and reading letters.

Illustration by Dana Smith

Seventeen-year-old Nazli Mohideen used to volunteer weekly at the Monroe Township Public Library. But when the pandemic put an end to volunteering, she wanted to find a way to stay connected to her community. 

When she heard the library had started a pen-pal program linking teens with seniors in town, she immediately signed up. “I was interested in the program because, with the pandemic, I wasn’t talking to a lot of people that much,” she says.

Mohideen decorates her letters with flowers in the spring and snowflakes in the winter. She writes about school clubs and plans for college. She looks forward to stories and life advice from her pen pal, 90-year-old Esther Raiss. “It would be lovely to meet her when the pandemic is over,” says Mohideen.

The project was the brainchild of the library’s director of teen services, Emily Mazzoni, in the summer of 2020, after realizing that connecting the two generations would benefit both groups. The teens, who could no longer volunteer, could earn community service hours while forging bonds with people they likely never would have met, and the seniors, many of whom are isolated and homebound, could make meaningful connections. 

In the Middlesex County town, many of the older residents are white and Jewish and many of the teens are Indian American, but Mazzoni says the mutual interest is more generational than cultural. “The pen pals get a perspective of the other generation,” she says. “A lot of the older women write about becoming homemakers after high school and they encourage the teens to pursue a career and follow their dreams.”

The project comprises eight seniors and eight teens, who correspond every three weeks. Letters are handwritten and travel via bookmobile between the library and the homes of the seniors.  

Raiss says she encourages her pen pal’s interest in art, and offers her the same advice she imparts to her own granddaughters: “Decide what you want to do and stick to it. Be active, keep busy, be creative, and—very important—talk to people.” Of the program she says, “It’s easier face to face but on the other hand, writing is not hurried so you can think about what you’re going to communicate.”

During the pandemic, other libraries throughout the state have found creative ways of connecting people. In 2021, Denise Lester, Westwood Library’s children’s librarian, received the New Jersey Library Association’s Innovative Program Award for her pen-pal program Global E-Pals. Using the online platform E-Pals, Lester connects local Westwood students with kids in countries including Brazil, Turkey and Ecuador.  

In Delanco, library patrons are writing to pen pals in Amagoro, a town in Western Kenya. Of the nine Delanco pen pals, two are school children and seven are adults, ages 40 to 80. 

When Toni Gilbert, 78, received an e-mail announcing the project, she immediately signed up. “The letters make me aware of how different and how alike we are,” says Gilbert. “I now have an understanding of another culture and a deeper appreciation of what we have here.”

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