“I decided, ‘Why not do the same thing in Salt Lake City?’” she said. While volunteering for Culture Collective Events, a group that hosts pop-up activities like street dancing and karaoke, she mentioned her love note idea to the organization’s founder, Bahaa Chmait.
He agreed to start a group with Jakiela called Love Letters that would be dedicated to writing down words of kindness and hope. The first meeting was around Chmait’s kitchen table with just four people, but it soon caught on and has expanded to bookstores, libraries and art galleries all over town.
More than a year in, several dozen people gather once or twice a month to write letters of encouragement, which they then leave in coffee shops, grocery stores, and on bus and train seats for strangers to find. On Valentine’s Day, the group plans to scatter valentines throughout Salt Lake City.
“With loneliness so prevalent, it’s hard to just walk up to someone and say, ‘Hi, would you like to be my friend?’” said Chmait, 37. “A handwritten letter is a lost art form that anyone can appreciate. It lets people know that somebody out there cares.”
Jakiela said she was initially inspired to write to strangers after learning about the World Needs More Love Letters, a movement started in 2011 by Hannah Brencher, an Atlanta writer who left kind notes in public places when she lived in New York City.
“This is something that anyone in the world can do,” said Brencher, 31, whose organization now operates in 70 countries and has delivered more than 250,000 letters. “I love that anyone can run with this idea and turn it into something unique for their own community like Salt Lake City has done.”
Jakiela and Chmait’s Love Letters workshops have produced more than 1,000 notes, which the message writers place randomly around town.
“I've left letters on train seats, inside books in the library and on top of a watermelon at the grocery store,” Chmait said. “I even left one at Home Depot once, leaning up against a drill. Typically, we'll write something simple on the envelope, like 'open me.'"
The letters include everything from handwritten poetry to inspiring quotes and words of encouragement. “Sometimes, just hearing 'You are enough,' can make somebody's whole day,” he said.
Kate Thompson was visiting Salt Lake City from the Seattle area to do research last year for a novel she was writing when she came across one of the group’s letters at Weller Book Works in the store’s “American West” section.
“I found a white envelope tucked between two books, and inside it said, 'Dear friend, if you find this letter, know that you are loved,'" she said. "'It is hard to fail, but it is worse to have never tried to succeed,' it said. And then, there was a simple heart drawn in ink."
The message came at a welcome time, Thompson said, since she’d spent several years working on her novel and had made two trips to Salt Lake City to do research.
“It was exactly the message I needed to hear, and it was really cool to find it right there in the western section,” she said. “I wasn't sure what to do with it. Do you keep a letter like this or do you leave it for somebody else to find?"
Thompson decided to snap a photo of the letter, then leave it where she found it. “It helped to brighten my day, so I figured that somebody else would enjoy it too,” she said.
Jonathan King, a special events coordinator for the Utah Arts Alliance, learned the impact of an anonymous love letter when he decided to pass along three letters left behind after a Culture Collective writing session at Salt Lake City's Urban Art Gallery last month.
“I went to the Gateway [a downtown shopping mall], and saw a person who was looking a little down,” King recalled. “So I handed her one of these three letters. As soon as she opened it, she started to cry.”
The message lifted her spirits after a bad day at work, he said.
“You are intelligent, you work hard and you are valued by people you don't even know,” the letter read.
For Steve Eirikis, who recently moved to Salt Lake City from Florida, writing love letters for strangers has connected him with others who are working to make a difference and has helped him contribute to the community.
“I helped a little girl to write a letter during a writing event at the library, and later found out that she was homeless,” said Eirikis, 30. “When I left for the day, somebody who had been watching me walked up and handed me a love letter. It said, 'I don't know who you are, but you're a very kind person.'"
“After writing 20 of these, what a treat it was to actually get one,” he said.
Jakiela knows that feeling. After bringing her love note idea to Utah, she never thought she would one day come across one of the random letters, but last April she did.
“During an especially hard moment in my life, I came across a love letter that was left in a coffee shop down the street from my house,” she said. “It read, ‘Dearest human, this note may find you by happenstance, but it was meant for you.’"
Jakiela had actually left letters of her own at the coffee shop many times.
“It’s true that what comes around goes around,” she said.
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