The pen pal project: Geneva seniors and new friends revive lost art of letter writing

  • GreenFields resident Helen Meints shows some of the letters she received through her retirement community's "Pony Express" pen pal program.

    GreenFields resident Helen Meints shows some of the letters she received through her retirement community's "Pony Express" pen pal program. Courtesy of GreenFields of Geneva

Posted5/22/2020 6:00 AM

My 95-year-old mother was struggling to hear me on the phone, and it was apparent it was time to turn to the most direct and sincere method of communication. I started writing her letters.

She likely has missed that sort of interaction over the past several years, when most of us turned to phone calls, e-mails and texts to check in with loved ones in other states.


This new chapter in my interactions with my mother made me aware the letter in a stamped envelope, held in one's hand and read in a way that you can hear the voice of the other person, represents a significant remedy for loneliness.

Senior citizens, especially those in independent or assisted living settings, are surely steering clear of physical human interaction at this time of coronavirus. Their families and friends are also under stay-at-home mandates. The human touch a letter can provide has been missing.

Karen Tomko, enrichment coordinator at GreenFields retirement community in Geneva, had that in mind when creating a "Pony Express" at the site near Mill Creek subdivision.

Tomko, a resident of Mill Creek, reached out to neighbors via Facebook and asked if anyone wanted to participate in a pen pal program with GreenFields' retired residents.

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The response was overwhelming, and nearly 50 residents are now receiving letters that Tomko delivers Pony Express style through the GreenFields site.

The pen pals, initially children in Mill Creek, have come to represent different age groups and some residents from other parts of the Tri-Cities and beyond.

"Other adults are also quarantined, so they love doing this, too," Tomko said. "One of my residents said they had a 45-year-old mom writing, and said that was fine."

When a new letter arrives, the look on residents' faces makes it all worth the effort, Tomko said.

Karen Tomko, enrichment coordinator at GreenFields retirement community in Geneva, launched a pen pal program to match GreenFields residents with people in the Tri-Cities who enjoy writing letters.
Karen Tomko, enrichment coordinator at GreenFields retirement community in Geneva, launched a pen pal program to match GreenFields residents with people in the Tri-Cities who enjoy writing letters. - Courtesy of GreenFields of Geneva

"Recently, a resident came to me and said to look at her letter, as it included a picture that a woman sent of her husband and five kids, so they are starting to send photos to each other."


Ultimately, the idea behind the Pony Express program is to have a pen pal reunion in which the GreenFields residents would meet the people who have been writing when it is safe to do so.

"The relationships with the kids have been special, too," Tomko added. "One resident moved here from France, and she's been writing to this young girl who has always wanted to go to France and takes French class in school. It has created a really neat bond."

Mostly, the pen pal program has generated a positive vibe about something happening at a retirement center when news of COVID-19 decimating other centers and nursing homes has been frightening.

"We have been very fortunate to have that under control," Tomko said of protecting the residents. "It has made the letter-writing really nice for the residents."

Tomko said she still gets requests from people of all ages about getting involved in the program. She's had to create a waiting list but doesn't want to discourage anyone from requesting information.

"The reaction and interaction has been so lovely," Tomko said. "We have some residents who aren't able to write back, and some of our pen pals don't mind that.

"A few pen pals are just doing God's work by writing letters and not expecting anything back," she added. "There are a lot of good people out there."

Wildwood closes doors

This past week, Wildwood restaurant owner Patrick Neary bid farewell to patrons in a letter on the Geneva establishment's website.

The letter, citing the pandemic crisis and state rules for restaurants as reasons for not being able to stay in business, also indicated fine dining locations that rent space were hit particularly hard by the crisis.

In thinking about that, it has been a little more difficult to consider getting carryout from a fine dining establishment than from, say, a pizza or Italian beef joint. The atmosphere and experience are what you miss when your top restaurants aren't active. But they need our support as well.

Alter opens carryout

Maybe it's been just slightly easier for a restaurant that hadn't opened yet to cope with the reality of coronavirus in starting slowly.

If so, here's to hoping for a long stay for Alter Brewing & Kitchen in the First Street plaza in St. Charles. The new restaurant is officially open for carryout and curbside pickup.

Alter will have online ordering set up soon, but earlier this week, it was touting its website menu and then phone or walk-in orders.

The lucky touch

Elburn Village President Jeff Walter shared an interesting note on his Facebook page recently about participating in the fundraiser to help Pat Hill, owner of the "Purple Store" in Maple Park, cover her medical bills.

The community has rallied around Hill since she was diagnosed with breast, liver and bone cancer more than five years ago. Most recently, community residents learned Hill's cancer has spread to her brain, adding another rugged chapter to this saga.

Hill has operated the two-story Hill's Country Store, known more commonly as the Purple Store, for more than a decade and served as Maple Park village president.

The Elburn Lions and local restaurants staged a cookout fundraiser, and Walter said he decided to buy lunch for every employee at village hall. In turn, everyone contributed to the fundraiser.

When delivering the fundraiser money, Walter bought each person a 50-50 raffle ticket -- and one of the village employees took home a $7,000 prize.

Walter didn't disclose the name of the winner but did thank Chet Cybulski, who informed him of the win later that night, for "giving me a heart attack -- and then telling me it wasn't my ticket that won, but one that I had bought."

This story has two morals.

First, yet again, Maple Park, Elburn and surrounding areas continue to help Pat Hill deal with her medical setback, even more so in the middle of a pandemic that has shut down her store.

Second, if you ask Jeff Walter to buy a lottery ticket for you, he might have the magic touch.

Delayed debut for St. Peter

As area Catholic churches take the first steps to normalcy with planned Masses this Sunday of 10 or fewer attendees, it should be noted that it would not be a typical "welcome back" sort of feeling at St. Peter Church in Geneva.

The reopening of church doors at St. Peter will mean its newly renovated and remodeled church will finally welcome parishioners.

The needed rebuild has been in the works for most of this year, with its initial debut scheduled for Easter Sunday if all construction deadlines were met.

The pandemic had other ideas about that.

In the meantime, pastor Father John Bakkelund has been communicating via YouTube videos with church updates, spiritual messages and readings, and, a couple of weeks ago, a virtual tour of the new church. It's quite a sight to behold and launches those of us who attend this church to move into a truly modern era and setting.

For a guy who grew up in the traditional setting of SS Peter & Paul in Naperville in the late 1950s and early '60s, this almost feels like coming full circle.

Still, those of us in the senior citizen category may have to wait a little longer for the "all clear" actually to attend Sunday services again.

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