Megan Sullivan

Burlingame High School student Megan Sullivan writes to her pen pal Norma Bennett.

COVID-19 sent hospitals into high alert more than a year ago, forcing greater safety practices to be instituted and putting an end to many volunteer opportunities.

Yet one local medical center sought to build connections between its support team through hand-written letters.

“Our senior population and our high school students are so use to coming in, touching lives and being physically present that when we had to lock down and our folks could come in we were so fearful for the emotional lives of our people,” Erik Mindermann, director of patient experience at Sutter Health’s Mills-Peninsula Medical Center, said.

The medical provider typically brings on 850 volunteers in a year from San Mateo County ranging in age from 14 to 96, said Mindermann. Roughly 150 volunteers are teens from the various high schools across the county selected through the provider’s Youth Volunteer Program.

In years past, volunteers would greet and provide directions to hospital visitors, staff the hospital’s gift shop, visit with patients and deliver items like magazines and warm towels. Teens are also intended to gain hospital experience that could lead them down a medical career path.

But when the pandemic struck the region, rigorous safety precautions meant volunteers were not allowed on grounds. That’s when Mindermann’s team began brainstorming ways volunteers could still give back from the safety of their homes.

“Our focus was on keeping everyone safe,” Mindermann said.

Interested in driving connections, the team decided a pen pal program between teens and senior volunteers would be ideal. Email and traditional mail call-outs were sent out to program participants to gauge interest in the opportunity and eventually 50 pairings were made.

Recognizing the large age differences between volunteers, staff sought to match people based on various similar interests to ensure pals would have something in common to talk about.

A love for the performing arts is what brought 16-year-old Burlingame High School student Megan Sullivan together with Norma Bennett, a 90-year-old San Mateo resident and great-grandmother of seven.

Bennett grew up in San Francisco with a love for ballet. Having started lessons at the age of 6, her dancing career continued through high school until she settled down with a job and her husband before starting a family.

Following her husband’s death, Bennett began volunteering at Mills-Peninsula where she’s spent nearly every Friday for the past 13 years. Due to the pandemic, her time has now been spent at home, gardening, reading and completing crossword puzzles.

“First everything was fine but a couple months ago I started getting antsy,” Bennett said. “I missed [volunteering] from the very beginning. I’m starting to get cabin fever.”

Also passionate about the performing arts, Sullivan has been involved in ballet and theater and has dreams of one day pursuing a career in the film industry or as an actress. Like Bennett, lockdown has been difficult for the teen who took up gardening and crochet to help pass the time.

While many activities like classes and theater quickly pivoted online, Sullivan’s softball team was unable to practice. Her second year volunteering with Mills-Peninsula alongside friends was also put on hold.

“It was definitely difficult going from seeing all my friends all the time to not seeing them in a year,” Sullivan said, whose parents are in the medical field.

Presented with the opportunity to join the pen pal program, both Sullivan and Bennett said there was little to lose in participating. Soon the pair were matched and began writing to each other in October with Bennett saying “it couldn’t have been a better match.”

Letters are done the old-fashioned way, Mindermann said — by hand. Each volunteer is asked to write at least one letter per month and the hospital makes sure the mail is delivered to the correct address.

Sullivan and Bennett occasionally write more frequently, sharing about their days, their hobbies and occasionally advice. The pair eventually hopes to meet in person and plans to continue their letters even after the program ends.

“I really want the pen pal program to keep growing even if things get back to normal,” Sullivan said. “And even if we do meet each other, when things go back to normal, I hope we keep up with letters.”

Mindermann said program leadership will look into planning a COVID-safe group meetup between the volunteers, helping pals come face to face for the first time.

As the county gains hold of the pandemic, Mills-Peninsula has started to welcome some volunteers back on grounds. It’s unclear when the program will return to its full capacity, given sustained uncertainties around the virus but Mindermann said he plans to continue the pen pal program into the future.

“Before, volunteers were used to providing service in person,” Mindermann said. “[The pen pal program] allowed them to touch people in a way that they didn’t have to physically be present for.”

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