The UNC Heel-Gram club, founded in response to the pandemic, sends pen pal letters and personalized letters to individuals with disabilities in the hospital.
The club was created by seniors Catie Bobetich and MacKenzie Maddox to help connect the UNC students to hospitalized people with disabilities.
Maddox has an extended family member who regularly received letters from his community over quarantine. In seeing how much he enjoyed them, she was inspired to bring that dynamic to UNC.
Members are assigned pen pals, and each letter is tailored to the interests of the recipient. Some letters are also themed around different holidays and seasons throughout the year.
Reagan Fleeher, the current social media chair and business administration major, said she has enjoyed getting to know her pen pal.
“My pen pal and I have exchanged at least 15 letters throughout this semester,” she said. “She's a big fan of romance novels and always updates me on what she’s reading.”
And the club is on the rise. Heel-Gram currently has 52 members, with 17 more already signed up to join next semester. The club is also working with several organizations around North Carolina, including EasterSeals, Special Olympics, Camp Royall and Gigi's Playhouse, to connect with people across the state.
Neuroscience major McKenna Griffin is Heel-Gram’s continuous improvement chair and said she works closely with these organizations. She also said she does a lot of research on people with disabilities and how to interact with them in a way that’s beneficial for all parties.
Fleeher said there are certain benefits of sending physical letters as opposed to digital messages.
“Letter writing has become almost obsolete as a form of communication,” she said. “But I think there is something so exciting about anticipating a response and having it physically show up in your mailbox one day.”
Maddox said letter writing is a great break from the world of constant social media and provides real connection in a digital age.
“Writing and receiving the letters has been therapeutic for our volunteer letter writers, especially since it provides a break from schoolwork,” she said. “It's just as rewarding for me as those with whom we communicate.”
The club plans to expand its operations once the pandemic is over. There are plans to host more in-person activities, such as working with community basketball teams for people with disabilities.
Current members highly encourage joining the club. Bobetich said there are real benefits to communicating with people in need of connection.
“Personally, receiving a letter back from my pen pal was very exciting,” she said. “(It) afforded an opportunity to dialogue with someone who might not have many outlets to meet new people and exchange ideas, hopes, fears and topics of importance to them."
Prospective members can message Heel-Gram’s Instagram account @heelgramunc to sign up for the fall semester.
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