Sending Sunshine with handwritten cards

Photo by Marissa Parker/Sending Sunshine

Let’s be frank: 90 per cent of the mail one receives is pretty boring stuff.

It’s bills, invoices, random political flyers or business coupons. But whenever you receive an actual, addressed letter with words from a friend, it’s something to treasure.

With the isolating nature of the COVID-19 crisis, getting correspondence has taken on a new level of importance: regardless of the amount of family Zoom sessions or Facetime calls, there’s something significant about opening an envelope to see your name and a few kind words.

This is why Sending Sunshine, an Ontario based non-profit, has risen to prominence over the past two years. They seek to send messages of joy and positivity to isolated seniors in communities across Canada, and one of the newest chapters has opened up right here in Calgary.

Marissa Parker — executive director and co-founder of Sending Sunshine — and Marilyn Bridges — long time Kerby volunteer and founder of the new Calgary chapter — sat down with the Kerby News to discuss the origins of the organization and the benefits it provides to the community.

For Parker, it was a number of coinciding events that started Sending Sunshine. She had had a job lined up in Ottawa that fell through following the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and moved back to her hometown of Mississauga. She was looking at various ways to get involved in her community and came across various organizations in the United States that did letter writing — whether it was creating penpals between women or writing letters to incarcerated individuals.

“I always loved writing letters throughout my University career,” Marissa said. “And I thought there was something we could do here to help our seniors affected by isolation.”

Isolation had been a problem on a national level for older adults, even before the pandemic hit. One third of all seniors live alone, with 40 per cent reporting they regularly experience loneliness. Moreover, socially isolated seniors are 60 per cent more likely to predict a decrease in their quality of life due to isolated nature. Even past the mental health implications, studies from Global Health and Research Policy have linked isolation with physical health issues, including increased blood pressure, heart disease, diminished immune system functionality and an increase in the risk of stroke.

Parker’s plan was to introduce a level of personalized positivity into the lives of older adults who were experiencing isolation — and it’s been a resounding success.

Sending Sunshine has received over 100,000 cards since its inception in August 2020. Eight thousand students in both Canada and the United States have participated in the program, and it only seems to be growing in popularity and effect.

“We’ve grown a lot and hope to keep continuing spreading sunshine as much as possible,” Parker said.

As for Bridges here in Calgary, she had a personal reason behind wanting to get involved with the organization. She acted as the primary caregiver for her mother for 20 years, and when her mom finally entered a care centre, Bridges saw how lonely folks could be.

“I remember one individual, didn’t see her very often, she kept to herself, and I often gave handmade cards,” Bridges said. “I gave her a card one day, and she said ‘why would you do this I’m just an old lady’.”

“I said: ‘you’re not just an old lady. You’re important’.”

Bridges recalled this woman was driven to tears by her small act of empathy.

“It’s reinforced what I saw and heard on a daily basis,” Bridges said. “People feel like they’re forgot and COVID-19 compounded that.”

Parker said cards are meant to be uplifting and positive, to help the recipients know that they’re not forgotten.

“It’s about creating a connection with someone else,” Parker said. “And the response has been so positive, it really has filled our hearts.”

Those who are interested in getting involved can email Bridges at Soon, she hopes to have card making workshops held at Kerby Centre as well.