She Dared to Reach Out

In a world where many don't know their neighbors, and even for those who do, they have a surface relationship, this story is inspiring. Read the Washington Post story here.

A lonely 90-year-old, Wanda Mills wrote a letter to her neighbor, Marleen Brooks, asking, simply, for a friend. Indeed, it took courage for Ms. Mills to write the letter and to get it to her neighbor. At the same time, it speaks well of Ms. Brooks that she 1) read the letter and 2) responded. Marleen is married with two teenage children and works full-time outside the home. Responding to her neighbor's plea undoubtedly cost her some time and energy. Yet she did.

And not only did Ms. Brooks respond to her neighbor, she considered the her neighbor might not be the only lonely elderly person around. And Ms. Brooks created a Facebook group called Pen Pals for Seniors. Anyone can sign up to write a letter to a senior citizen who has also signed up on the site.

As he character in one of my favorite kid's video series says: Good has been done here.

We all have the chance to brighten the life of someone else, through this vehicle of penpalling.

Keep calm and write on!

Handwritten Letters in a Digital World

Ivan Cash had an interesting idea: invite people to email him a letter that they wished to send to a friend, acquaintance or family member. Ivan committed to writing the letter and sending it off, as a service project of sorts, as he sought a new path in life.

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Very quickly after launching the website, Ivan became overwhelmed with the requests for letters to be sent. Thankfully, others volunteered to write letters with him and Snail Mail My Email continued. In total, 234 volunteers from around the world sent 10,457 letters (at their own expense) to 70 countries on all continents.


The book, Snail Mail My Email, has copies of at least 100 of these letters and the creativity of the letter senders is wonderful. I heartily recommend this book and I also recommend finding a way, in this rush-rush digital world, for you to connect with others. 

Keep calm and write on!

Swahili for Beginners


This is a fictionalized account of a penpal relationship. Georgie Wilde, a 13-year-old girl from Canada, is adventurous and interested in doing many things in life. One day she goes online and comes across a site where youth can put their address in the hopes that they will get a penpal. She takes the address of another teenager, Ellie Mwanga, who lives in Tanzania.

Once Ellie’s letters arrive, Georgie’s world is broadened as she learns both about this African country and Ellie’s life. Georgie gets it in her mind that she should go visit Ellie in Tanzania and sets about raising funds through working various jobs, but she is scared to ask her mother as she feels her overprotective mother will not allow her to go.

The book gives the account of Georgie’s life which includes normal issues of a Western teenager as well as her growing friendship with Ellie. I would recommend this book, as it gives information on touristy sties in Tanzania and generalized accounts of life in that country (at least at the time of publishing).

Keep calm and write on!

Penpal Tip: Jo says...

I have been writing to Jo in South Carolina since June 2017. I appreciate learning from her about living on a farm.

Jo says: Well for a start, don’t begin a penpal relationship if you are not willing to keep up with it. Be sure you have the time and attention to devote to it, otherwise you are wasting someone’s time. Also don’t get in the habit of writing form letters to all your penpal friends. If you insist on writing form letters, make sure to proofread the letter before sending it! And sign your letters always.

Great tips from Jo. I had a pal once who sent form letters and it just made me feel: what is the point? In a form letter, you don’t ask questions about the other person, so you aren’t getting to know them. And for me, the whole point of penpalling is to get to know someone else. I would ask this penpal specific questions and she never responded to them. So although she did give me glimpses into her life with what she shared, it was just a monologue and not a dialogue. So I let her go.

Keep calm and write on!



Dear John...

Life and human nature being what it is, not all relationships will last until the end of time. And that’s okay. It can be sad, especially if you have written to a person for a decade or more, if you get to the point that you want to end the relationship.

Be courteous in ending. I cannot tell you how many penpals have dropped me and never said a word. I notice when I do not receive a letter, but in the spirit of not crowding a person, I don’t always write the first month. I think: well, maybe they are just extra busy with the kids or their job. Or maybe they just want a break from letter writing. No harm, no foul.

But usually after three months I will send a test letter to say, Hey, I notice you haven’t written in a while. Is it that you’re busy? Or do you want to end our correspondence? I always try to say that I don’t want them to feel pressured to be my penpal, but it would be nice to know definitively if they want to end.

Some might say: well, if they haven’t written you, then (duh!) they don’t want to be your penpal anymore.

Not necessarily. Last year, I had two penpals who had not written me since March or so. I sent them both Christmas greetings. (That was my test letter.) One wrote back to say that she had been battling cancer, but she was glad to hear from me and would enjoy continuing our correspondence. Another wrote back to say that she had had some health issues and just felt a bit overwhelmed by the number of penpal letters she had been receiving but was glad I had reached out and “please, let’s continue writing.”

I wish I could say that all of my test letters come back so positively. Of course, that’s not the case.

If I get to the point where I don’t feel the correspondence is growing or maybe I am overwhelmed and don’t wish to write, I send a letter to the person. I’m sure some people have felt surprised to get my “Dear John” letter, but at least they aren’t wondering if I’m going to continue being their penpal.

Be courteous and communicate your intentions.

Keep calm and write on!


The Price of Two Gumballs


In September 2017, I was blessed to attend my 30th class reunion. For the majority of the other planned reunions, I was out of the United States and could not attend so this was special to me to see those with whom I had spent four years of my life. Years that had been the best of times and the worst of times.

Some brought their yearbook to the reunion and browsing through made me think of the teachers I had had. A month after the reunion, I came across one of my former English teachers online. She was still teaching English but at a different school. I made a mental note to send her a letter.

Well, life interrupted and it wasn’t until the Christmas holidays when I sat myself down to write to her. I also wrote two others – French teachers. It took a while, but finally towards the end of January, I got responses from two of them. They both remembered me and were happy to hear what I had made of my life. They shared a bit of what they had done once they left my high school.

I don’t think either my letters or their responses were more than a page in length, but it left me with a warm fuzzy, both in hearing from them and knowing I had brought a smile to their day.

Once again, I was struck with the fact that for the cost of two gumballs (that is, 50 cents), I was able to connect with people from my past...through the simple mechanism of a letter.

I encourage you in letter writing. If you’ve only been accustomed to writing emails or texts, it may seem a bit stilted at first. But as with most skills, it’s the regular practice that develops the muscle. Keep at it. Your letter may bring a smile to someone’s face and that is worth the price of two gumballs.

Keep calm and write on!

Penpal Tip: Carmen says...

I have a German penpal, Carmen, and when asked what advice she’d give a person who is starting out in penpalling, she said: Be open to (a penpal) from any country and be honest! That’s what I am and it’s amazing how many people I’ve “met” through the last 35 years. Many people think that penpalling is a boring, old-fashioned hobby but they probably never will understand the gift that it is.

And indeed it is a gift for someone to let you into their lives, through a correspondence relationship. In many cases, you may never meet the person face to face (although with Facetime, Skype and other apps, you may get to talk with them. I have found my corresponding relationships go as deep – and sometimes deeper – than my face-to-face relationships. There’s just something about sharing words on a page that can bond you to a person.

Certainly not every penpal is going to share intimate details of their lives with you, but for the ones who do trust you to share, it is indeed a gift.

Keep calm and write on!



It's National Penpal Day

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June 1st is National Penpal Day (in the U.S., at least), and what a day to celebrate!

I am biased, but I think getting a penpal is a gift that every child should receive right about the time of adolescence. Although I think knowing someone in your own country who lives in a different city is useful, I am an enthusiastic supporter of international penpals. Knowing someone overseas will inform your watching of the news. Generally speaking, penpalling will broaden your world as you learn how someone your age is living in a different place.

I got my first penpal at 12 years old, through an invitation from my high school French teacher. It is a decision that I never regretted. It is also the gift that keeps on giving, as I have had penpals in the 30 years since. 

Penpalling is a great hobby because you can do it on your own time - no pesky limits on the hours that you can do it. It also doesn't require any special supplies - just pen and paper. Of course, many penpallers buy special stationery, pens and make their own envelopes...but that is not required. Thirdly, the price of stamps is fairly reasonable around the world.

I encourage you to start on your own penpalling journey. 

Keep calm and write on!

The Power of Personal Letters

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“As I learn the advantages and value of e-mail, I cherish some of the old-fashioned ways more and more. When I get a real letter now from a real friend written with a real pen and ink, I read it real slow – several times – and file it away for safe-keeping.” (Linton Weeks)

That quote is a good resume of the premise of the book, Always First Class: The Power of Personal Letters by Lois Barry. Yes, we know that email communication can be more efficient, but there’s something about an actual letter that is special. Worthwhile. Useful in its own right.

Ms. Barry has filled this book with quotes about the benefits and complexities of letter writing. Many of those quoted are famous literary figures, past and present. The chapters are short with intriguing titles such as Of course I saved your letters, Looking forward to your voice on the page, and But wait! There’s more.

I agree with a quote attributed to Goethe: Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind.

Keep calm and write on!

Penpal Tip: Hazel says...

[Note: I will sometimes post tips I have received on penpalling from penpals to whom I am currently writing. This is the first such post.]

Here I have some tips from Hazel in New York. We have been pals since June 2016. She is a faithful penpal and often writes even more than once a month.


Hazel says: I think someone who is beginning to penpal, they have to love writing, people, learning about different cultures etc and have an adventurous mind.

I totally agree with Hazel. If you don’t love to write, after the first few letters, you’ll probably stop writing or you will be slower to respond. If you don’t love people and learning about different places, if a penpal writes something that you find strange or something you are opposed to (whether philosophically or morally), you might offend them with your response. Remember, if we are all alike, then some of us are unnecessary. As cliché as it sounds, variety really is the spice of life.

So spice up your life with people from different places and expand your mind...and your writing skills.

Keep calm and write on!


Ask and Ye Shall Receive?

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What if you could ask your mailbox for something...and you would receive it?

This is the story of Liam, a boy who desperately wants mail. So he writes a letter to his mailbox. His mailbox delivers, sometimes more than he was hoping for! This light-hearted children's book by Ben Clanton made me and my eight-year-old son laugh out loud in parts.

More than an idea in an easy-reading book, penpalling is making a request of your mailbox. We never really know how the mailbox will respond. Sometimes, our requests go unanswered, although we send letter upon letter.  Sometimes, the letters seem to come at a steady pace and we are hard-pressed to have the time to responsd.

In addition to letters, some penpals send little gifts or even boxes of stuff for your birthday or Christmas.

I have found, still, that the best response from my mailbox is a steady stream of letters in a correspondance relationship, where I get to know the penpal: her family, friends, the things that bring a smile to her face and those things that make her sigh.

What's coming in your mail?

Keep calm and write on!

But What Should I Write About?

PENPAL TIP - Ask questions

Part of being a penpal is to get to know your correspondent. If you don't want to know the other person, there's no good reason to get a penpal.

In a face-to-face conversation, you can show interest by your facial expression or murmured words of agreement or tracking of the other person's conversation. With pen and paper, one of the best ways of showing interest in the other person is to ask questions.

While reading the letter, it helps to have a pen or a highlighter so you can underline parts where your penpal wrote something interesting about which you'd like to follow up with a question. But there are times when your penpal may write a letter that doesn't have a lot of points you can follow up. What do you do?

Pull something from pop culture or from the news to speak about.

You can also look online to find lists of questions to ask new friends. I have found two good lists here:…/fun-questions-to-get-to-know… or…/.

Many other questions can be found with a simple Google search. As well, you can ask about their family or the town where they live or grew up.

If you had a face-to-face friendship and never once asked a question of the other person, that friendship would likely not develop. The same is true of a correspondence.

Keep calm and write on!

Friendship Books

In the world of penpalling, you will likely eventually run across friendship books. Perhaps a penpal will ask you: Do you swap FBs?

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The friendship book is an interesting invention, for the penpal who is seeking new penpals and doesn't necessarily want to pay for them. I have penpals who only get new pals through FBs. I have included a picture of a FB cover above, but of course, there are varying degrees of creativity and quality in these FBs.

Inside the front cover of the FB, it says: FB made by (and lists the name of the creator) and for (and lists the name of the recipient). The by and for names can be the same. 

The idea is, if you wish to have new penpals, you put a mailing label (or write your address) with a few interests and your bday or at least your age. Then you forward it to a penpal of yours. The point is the FB goes around the world and collects addresses. Once the FB is full, it is intended to be sent back to the "for" recipient listed in the cover.

I have filled out many a FB in my years of penpalling, but I don't recall ever receiving a letter to say: I saw your name/address in a FB and thought I'd write to you. I have, however, written many a letter to names I found in a FB and I have gotten spotty response.

The key thing to remember about the FB is the abbreviations.


Another important thing to remember about FBs is that they tend to take a long time to get back to the intended recipient. In fact, I sometimes wonder if they EVER do. Some people will write the month/year they sign the FB and I've had FBs that seem to have been circulating for 5-10 years. (It actually might make a good experiment to get a FB going and see how long it takes to come back to you.)

Even though they don't seem so effective, I do enjoy receiving FBs because it's a great way to learn of potential new penpals.

Keep Calm and Write On!

The Power of Penpalling

I read the story: I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Stoicsitz and Martin Ganda.

Wow. This story was just great – a success story as far as penpalling is concerned. It started in September 1997 when Caitlin Stoicsitz, a 7th grader in rural Pennsylvania (USA) and Martin Ganda, who was in his 8th year in school in rural Zimbabwe.

The book chronicles how Caitlin and Martin are paired as penpals through a school project and how they grow to be friends through their letters. Even more, we learn that the two families are connected as Caitlin's family help Martin's family through some difficult financial times in Zimbabwe. Martin and Caitlin eventually meet in 2003 and their friendship continues.

I was gripped with the story from the beginning. It was well-written and very interesting to see the juxtaposition of Caitlin’s life with Martin’s life. It was also nice to get real feelings from each of them.

The book is a great advertisement for the power and benefit of encouraging youth to get penpals. This penpal relationship (which is perhaps the only one that endured from all the kids in Caitlin’s class) taught both sides a lot about the other country and people in general.

I would highly recommend the book.

Keep calm and write on!



Penpal Tip: Include a Return Address

I have been penpalling for decades. Although I learned the proper way to write a letter in grade school, until recently, I never included a return address on my letter. I thought it was a bit too much, given that I’m quite religious about always including the return address on the envelope. I figured, My new penpal doesn’t need it in both places.

But experience has taught me what logic did not. Including your return address inside the envelope is insurance. If something happens and your envelope is mangled or doesn’t arrive in the pristine conditions in which you sent it, the return address on the letter will insure that the penpal can write you back.

There have been times when I could not read the return address on the envelope, because the post office has put their mark at just that point. And then I am stuck. I have a lovely letter from a potential new penpal but I cannot respond to it. Not a good way to win friends and influence people.

I encourage you to put a return address on your letter, as well as on the envelope. (The latter is more for you – in case your letter doesn’t reach your intended recipient, it will come back to you.) I would even encourage you to include your return address in each letter. Doing so makes it easier for the penpal, rather than having to look up your address when they reply. The easier it is for someone to respond, the more likely they will do so in a timely manner.

Keep calm and write on!

Live in Anticipation

One of the best things about having snail mail penpals is the anticipation created in the wait. In today's world where many things are instant or where we are "on" all the time through social media or smart phones, we don't have to wait if we don't want to.

Waiting is part and parcel of postal penpalling. You apply, get your list of penpals and diligently sit down to write introductory letters. You pop them into the mailbox.

And then you wait.

You wait for the person to get your letter. And thankfully, the wait has gotten shorter from years past. Most countries use international airlines to get letters to a foreign country. (Decades ago, international letters traveled by boat!) Once in the desired country, the letters are transported by land.

So you wait for your potential new penpal to get your letter. Then you must wait for them to respond to the letter. Some penpals write back the next day. Some respond three months after getting your letter. Then it takes time for their response to reach you.

There's something to that wait. And oh, how nice it is when the letters start rolling in! You get home from work after a longish day and there it is: a letter with a colorful, unfamiliar stamp. You peer closer. It's from Kenya!

Even before you rip into the letter (or maybe you use a civilized letter opener to keep things tidy), you are wondering about the sender. You wonder about their family. You wonder about their interests. You wonder if this relationship will become long-term.

And the anticipation doesn't end. After you get to know them, you anticipate receiving their next letter to catch up on their news because this person whom you know only through paper and ink is becoming a friend.

Keep calm and write on!