How teen sisters built a nonprofit with 19,000 volunteers
Shreya Patel found herself between high school and college when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the U.S. hard. As the Boston resident adapted to a changed world, she and her younger sister, Saffron, began calling their grandparents every day, as a way to support them during their self-imposed isolation.
“Our grandparents are such social people — my grandma goes to the gym more than I do,” Patel said. “And so her being alone in her apartment, it was really tough for her. … We wanted to make sure that she still had that social connection even though she couldn’t go out and see her friends.”
But despite the phone calls, as lockdown dragged on, the Patel sisters could see that their grandmother was struggling.
“And then a friend of hers sent a letter to her, and it was just beautiful — it had this hand-drawn rainbow on the front,” Shreya Patel recalled. “That completely changed her whole demeanor. She showed it to us for a week straight on FaceTime, just beaming every time.”
Those efforts soon got the siblings thinking about the broader issue of loneliness among seniors. They began writing letters to strangers in assisted living facilities and nursing homes in their local community.
“Within a week we were trying to write to 200 seniors,” Patel said. “We needed some help.”
Determined to keep up with the growing demand for their missives, the siblings started Letters Against Isolation. From its humble beginnings in April 2020, the nonprofit now boasts 19,000 volunteers and serves thousands of seniors in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia and Israel. Even as Patel moved to St. Louis for college at Washington University, the organization has continued its work.
For recipients, the letters have been invaluable.
“Getting something from the outside world telling them they were loved and reminding them to be grateful for the things that they do have was meaningful [to them],” Patel said. “We heard from one senior, called Florence, who’s a wonderful woman. … She said that they reminded her of the love letters that her husband had sent her back when she was a young girl. And I think that was just so special.”
Even as vaccinations have allowed many older adults to have more in-person interactions, Patel noted that the issue of loneliness hasn’t gone away.
“Senior loneliness is a problem that existed long before the pandemic, and it will persist long afterwards,” she explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. “I think about 40% of seniors before the pandemic reported feeling lonely on a regular basis. And that has huge impact on seniors' mental health and also physical health. And so if we can do something even small like this, to reach out to them, and to remind them [that] they’re not alone, I’d want to keep on doing that.”
Patel, who is now a sophomore at Washington University, said her work with Letters Against Isolation has helped shaped her hopes for her career path.
“I think I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial bone in my body, and same with Saffie — she ran a jewelry business in, like, middle school that got shut down by the school. … I think both of us have always been trying to build something exciting,” Shreya Patel said. “And this just gave us an opportunity to really run with that passion and that drive and build something really cool.”
Patel is studying business and computer science, but she’s also pursuing a minor in philosophy.
“I like doing the technical stuff, and I like building businesses, so that works very well for me,” Patel said. “But I also just like reading philosophy. I think it stretches you to think in interesting directions and consider your place in the world. And I think it's important to have those conversations with yourself.”
As for Letters Against Isolation, the demand for letters is ongoing — as is the need for more volunteers. Patel encouraged would-be letter writers to visit the organization’s website to learn more.
“If you scroll down just a little bit, you can see a bright yellow Get Involved form,” Patel said. “Fill that out, and you’ll be on a mailing list, and we’ll send you your first signup sheet this Sunday.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.