A pen pal program started during COVID is linking seniors and teenagers in Toronto

Penpals Laura Greenberg and Aryelle Sigulim.

Aryelle Sigulim started writing letters to her grandparents at the beginning of the pandemic, when they were all locked down and lonely and craving contact with their loved ones.

Her Bubby and Nana wrote back, and the project snowballed.

“I really enjoyed their responses. So, I started writing to their friends and they also loved receiving a letter,” said Aryelle, a 13-year-old student at Toronto’s Leo Baeck Day School.  From there, she came up with the idea of more students writing letters to their grandparents and other seniors to help them feel less isolated in their retirement homes.  

Today, the project called P.S. I Love You has grown to include 90 students  corresponding with 300 seniors. The name came after a brainstorming session Aryelle had with her parents.

Aryelle “would finish her letters with ‘P.S. I love you, I can’t wait to see you. P.S. I am sending you a big hug,’” said her mother, Andrea Sigulim.

“Letter writing is kind of a lost art in itself,” Andrea said. “Seniors have a lifetime of knowledge, hobbies and experiences that they enjoy sharing.  And students are learning empathy and letter-writing, but also, they are learning respect.”

The pen pal project now includes students from The Leo Baeck Day School, TanenbaumCHAT and John Knox Christian School in Oakville, Ont. Aryelle’s parents recruited seniors from Terraces of Baycrest, Kensington Place Retirement Residence and the Prosserman JCC.

“Because there were community service hours involved, Aryelle wanted it to be official. So Rabbi Yossi Sapirman from Living Jewishly helped us coordinate with the students,” said Aryelle’s father Saul Sigulim. “Now we have other synagogues participating with P.S. I Love You and some students are doing it for their bar/bat mitzvah project.”

“The first letter is always the hardest,” Aryelle said. “I introduce myself, tell them what school I go to, my hobbies, and I ask about their week and what they are looking forward to.  It’s different every time. And I always include a picture of myself.” 

Laura Greenberg, a resident at Kensington Place, is one of Aryelle’s pen pals and the pair have been writing for about a year.

Aryelle writes to Greenberg about her dog, school, and summer camp. “When I was five years old, I was sent to camp and when Aryelle writes about camp, I think about when I went to camp, it brings back memories,” Greenberg said.

Aryelle also sends her photos of her dog Max, a golden retriever who joined her family during the pandemic.  “I have a little album of pictures she sends me.”

Aryelle says she has learned valuable life lessons from the project. “I started something from very little and it grew and has made such an impact on my community,” she said. “Until I received my first letter back, I never thought I could make a difference in people’s lives. I have learned that all of us need someone to give us kindness, caring and love.”

How does it work?  Students can register for free at Living Jewishly. Once signed up, they will receive a P.S. I Love You stationery kit, which includes envelopes, stamps, and the names of three letter recipients as well as access to a Google folder where they file scans or photos of the three letters they write each month.

Students can write to their own pen pal—a grandparent, or senior family friend and submit those names and addresses upon registration, said Andrea. Seniors are also welcome to reach out to the project.

P.S. I Love You also has a resource centre where students can find sample letters for inspiration.