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Class assignment inspires pandemic pen pals generations apart

To date, close to 500 letters have poured into St. Mary Healthcare Center from Purdue students and others.

LAFAYETTE, Ind. — For Marilyn DeLong, life in a nursing home during the pandemic has been a lot like living on an island.

"I miss seeing my family," she said. "I miss seeing my husband."

But a giant stack of letters, she's quick to point, have been her life boat.

There are at least 50 and they’re still coming.

"This one says 'Hi. I hope all is well, my name is Kyle,'" she said as she read one of them. "'I'm a third-year business student at Purdue University.'"

The whole thing started as a class assignment from Kyle's class instructor at Purdue.

"He has volunteered hours his students have to fulfill," Kyle said. "And if I was in (Marilyn's) position, reading a letter from students would mean a lot to me too."

Kyle lost his grandmother to COVID-19 over the summer.

Other students chose to write letters to residents at St. Mary Healthcare Center in Lafayette, too. But not even lecturer Keith Molter knew what would happen next.

"I was shocked!" Molter exclaimed.

Credit: Sarah Gray
To date, close to 500 letters have poured into St. Mary Healthcare Center.

To date, close to 500 letters have poured into St. Mary Healthcare Center. Not just for Marilyn, but for her neighbors, too.

"It kind of became a buzz around the campus," said Sarah Gray, activities director at St. Mary. "Every day, it seems I'd have a resident say 'Do I have a letter today? Can I get one of those?'"

There's artwork, too.

"One girl sent — oh it's about this big," Marilyn said, using her arms to show how big of a painting a young woman had sent.

So how did it all happen? When other students learned what Molter’s students were doing, they decided to do it too.

And their friends joined in.

And their friends' friends.

"This has grown from us doing this class project to students getting ahold of me that have read about it that wanted to do it," Molter said. "Two sororities have now picked it up as a letter writing campaign."

One parent is now encouraging his employees at work to write someone a letter.

Asked why he thinks it caught on, Molter didn't pause for a second.

"I think it's just the right project at the right time," Molter said.

"Everyone, I feel like, needs someone right now," Gray said.

Credit: Sarah Gray
Marilyn DeLong reading a letter from one of her pandemic pen pals.

These days, Marilyn is trying to catch up on writing her new pen pals back and filling them in on her life.

"I like to bowl on my tablet," she wrote Kyle. "I have a 184 average and my high game is 278 out of a possible 300."

She then raised her head and started chuckling.

"I had to brag a little bit!"

She and her neighbors are thankful for the company and the reminder that sometimes all you need is a pen or a keyboard — and a little time — to make a big difference in someone's life.