The note came from Ruth and in vintage cursive writing began: "This is something I haven't done in years: Write a letter – that's a challenge! I'm 92 but love to get mail from new places and new people."
If 17-year-old Sahil Swali and his family needed any further validation that their pandemic project mattered, the gratitude expressed by the newest fan of #WriteToAppreciate delivered it – along with a striking image of an acrylic by the self-described "aspring painter."
This unlikely connection between the teenage son of Indian immigrants in upstate New York and a nonagenerian isolated in Nebraska is a story Sahil can tell decades hence, about converting individual disappointment from COVID-19 quarantine into fuel to build community with old-fashioned apps – ink and paper, brushes and paint, kind hearts and willing spirits.
It was on March 14 that Sahil learned a two-week trip to Australia, earned through his involvement with the U.S. Air Force Civil Air Patrol, had been canceled.
"I read an article that COVID-19 was having a devastating effect on seniors, and that senior-living communities couldn't have visitors," says Sahil, a junior at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, New York. "My interpretation was maybe these residents are lonely and maybe getting letters from people would be a good way to fight that loneliness."
So Sahil recruited his parents and younger brother, Ishan, to enlist people in an effort they named #WriteToAppreciate. They asked for letters, notes and artwork, with one stipulation – all must be fashioned by hand.
He began to connect with senior living facilities in their area near Albany, and also turned to hospitals to reach healthcare workers. Rather than mail the pieces physically, Sahil decided to convert them into high-resolution digital images.
That grew at first out of uncertainty over what handwritten mail the facilities might be willing to accept, but digitizing the correspondence allowed #WriteToAppreciate to scale the impact.
As teenagers around the world have experienced to some degree, March and April brought more disappointment – canceled proms, canceled sports, schools shut down for the year. But as these blows accumulated for Sahil – no more track season – the gratitude kept flowing into the #WriteToAppreciate in-box.
As Mother's Day approaches, it's not lost on Sahil's mom, Gayatri, that her son's idea has provided a gift that transcends their own tight family.
"When we get a response back, it's super-exciting," says Gayatri, a physical therapist who has lost work because of the quarantines. "We all gather around the kitchen table and sometimes you get tears in your eyes. Sometimes, you laugh like crazy."
For the Swalis, #WriteToAppreciate has become a family affair – bonding via their kindness-hailing side gig.
There are now 63 facilities and five hospitals in 12 states participating in the program. To join, fashion a note or artwork and follow the instructions posted on the #WriteToAppreciate website, which Sahil built.
The project moved his father, Rahul, to write an essay published on Medium reflecting on values instilled growing up in Tanzania, the son of Indian immigrants. He wrote of the Hindu custom of Charan Sparsh, to physically bow and touch the feet of elders, and the traditional Swahili greeting denoting respect for elders, Shikamoo.
"What I see Sahil providing is the opportunity for people to express that love for elders," Rahul says. "Sahil's said to me that nothing in the world makes sense right now, but if a lonely senior can receive some words of comfort, that does make a lot of sense to me."
In mid-April, Rahul received his own disappointing news when his company eliminated his finance position. But he says he's taking the perspective that, after 23 years with the same company, he is free to pursue new opportunities.
"We're all in this together," Rahul says. "You can't just be too wrapped up in our own individual circumstances. It's worthwhile to look beyond ourselves."
Even as Gayatri notes her family's challenges barely compare to some in places like India and Africa, that doesn't make it any easier to soothe her teen sons when this new (ab)normal brings yet more disappointing news.
Just Tuesday, Sahil learned that another Civil Air Patrol appointment he'd earned, to its summer Flight Academy, was also canceled.
For solace, Sahil can read the impeccable penmanship from another #WriteToAppreciate pen pal, Dottie: "I see you are in your early years of high school. I have so many fond memories. Enjoy them. They go by so fast."
As Gayatri puts it: "We've talked about, how long should we keep this going? I think as long as it's making one person smile, it's worth continuing."