Photography by Jessica Turner.

Senior Pen Pals, a virtual letter-exchange program, is a nonprofit that aims to strengthen intergenerational connections between seniors and Generation Z and help with mental health in teenagers and seniors. Launched by 17-year-old Ananya and 15-year-old Anisha Sharma, two Hockaday School students, the project has gone viral.

Children, teens and seniors are the demographics whose mental health has been the most negatively affected because of COVID-related isolation.

“The whole idea is to mentally stimulate (seniors) but at the same time, help our generation,” Anisha says.

In an independent-study course, Anisha researched the effects of COVID on the mental health of seniors.

“It was really heartbreaking,” she says. “I saw antidepressant use and wellness checks really skyrocketed around quarantine and just kind of stayed really high.”

After kicking the idea around, and with lot of time on their hands, they started working on the project. They filed tax forms to become a nonprofit with the help of their mom, a lawyer, and paid for the fees.

Anisha built a simple file-share website on Wix. Ananya called and emailed to set up meetings with social workers at nursing homes to recruit for their program. They pitched to nursing home administrators.

“That’s definitely the hardest part is getting people to listen to what you have to say,” Anisha says.

The Sharmas enlisted kindergarten and third-grade students to draw and write pen-pal letters as part of their community service hours at Hockaday. Upper-level students submitted letters on their own. People who have stumbled across their site have also written.

Nursing home social workers download the letters and disperse them among residents. Residents respond, and the letters are sent back through the website.

“We seem to forget that seniors were once teenagers too. They have really interesting stories. You could learn some really important life lessons from them,” Ananya says. “You never know what could be in a letter.”

So far they’ve reached over 750 seniors in seven nursing homes in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana since launching in May.

The girls have a personal reason for doing this. A couple of years ago, they lost their grandfather. He was in the hospital for an extended period, and that affected his mental health.

“All he wanted to do was go home, but he couldn’t. He was bored,” Ananya says. “And when a person is bored, it’s very easy for people to fall into depression. It’s hard to get better, physically.”

They hope that by the time Anisha graduates, the nonprofit will be a permanent organization at Hockaday, passed on to younger students who have a similar passion, and have nationwide reach.

While the Sharmas are working to reach more nursing homes, they’re also in the process of launching their next venture, Help India Now. They’re talking to major hospital systems, the RedCross and embassies to coordinate delivering medicine and other healthcare items in India to combat the COVID crisis.

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