The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Texas nursing home is happy to be ‘overwhelmed’ by its pen-pal program

Residents of the Hillside Medical Lodge show off their many received letters. (Courtesy of Hillside Medical Lodge)
Placeholder while article actions load

In tiny Gatesville, Tex., population 12,000, the mail truck used to pull into Hillside Medical Lodge every day with a few envelopes for the front desk. They demanded little attention, and they did little to disrupt the everyday routine at the nursing home, especially amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, Hillside posted on Facebook about a new program. It sought pen pals for 52 residents detached from the outside world.

Two days later the post had been shared more than 12,000 times on Facebook. Included were photos of each of the residents holding up whiteboards with their names and their interests. Then, letters started arriving from around the world. On Monday, the mail truck had so many deliveries, it had to make two stops.

Across the nation, the pandemic has placed hospitals and nursing homes under duress — especially in Texas, which ranks third among U.S. states with more than 500,000 documented cases. Senior citizens accustomed to regular visits from family are isolated. Staff who used to focus on long-term care are tasked with the grave responsibility of preventing outbreaks.

But during the past week, both groups have a welcome distraction — an avalanche of well over 2,600 letters and postcards pledging support and companionship.

“We now have a mail room,” said Susie Meelbusch-Woods, the nursing home’s director of public relations. “We’ve never had a mail room before.”

Residents at this senior center asked for pen pals. They’ve gotten nearly 20,000 letters.

When the truckloads arrived, the staff converted a conference room into a receiving center. Employees — Meelbusch-Woods, nurses, nurses’ aides, social workers, dietitians, office staff — drained by the stress of keeping residents healthy were staying after their shifts ended to disinfect, sort and deliver mail.

The residents’ interests ranged from sewing to farming to baking, and each of them received at least 50 letters. A 97-year-old war veteran named Matt has more than 300. The letters came from around the U.S., as well as England, Spain and one preschool in Thailand. Dr Pepper delivered 16 cases of soda for a woman named Billie who said on her whiteboard that she enjoyed Dr Pepper and family. Supportive pen pals sent coloring books, games and an Atari console.

“It looks like the opening of Harry Potter, if you’re familiar, with the letters pouring in,” said Kate Watson, a publicist who helped promote the program.

Nellie, who turned 90 in May, said she liked scrapbooking and soon received a basket of scrapbooking materials, in addition to a full bin of more than 60 cards. A 15-year-old cheerleader sent her a homemade mask. She hasn’t visited with family in months, confined to see her son and granddaughter through the window in her room. Now, each resident has a staffer to go through every piece of mail.

“I was just overwhelmed,” Nellie said by phone Tuesday. “I couldn’t believe that many people answered. It’s wonderful to know that people care about you.”

Grateful as the Hillside staff is for the widespread love, Meelbusch-Woods also encouraged those interested to share their support with local nursing homes. The pen-pal idea originated with a nursing home in North Carolina that reported more than 20,000 letters, and other care providers in Oklahoma and Illinois have since begun similar programs.

For now, Hillside has devoted staff to going through mail with residents and will try to respond to each sender at least once, a task that will keep them busy for a while.

“People have just been so amazing around this world,” Meelbusch-Woods said. “I really feel this whole world is just craving positivity. I feel like people are just grasping at anything that’s positive right now and wanting to give back. It’s so wonderful to see this, and to be able to live it.”

Read more on Extraordinary People:

Domino’s delivered a big surprise to couples who had to postpone their weddings

Groups feed hospital workers — and support restaurants, too

Through ‘Project Smile,’ two brothers lift coronavirus patients’ spirits, one card at a time

A pregnant woman with covid-19 was dying. With one decision, her doctors saved three lives.