Leeds penpal scheme soars after featuring in the YEP

Phoebe Neville-Evans, right, pictured with her penpal  Margaret Quirke. Picture by Simon Hulme
Phoebe Neville-Evans, right, pictured with her penpal Margaret Quirke. Picture by Simon Hulme
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FACE to face for the first time, students meet their penpals from an innovative scheme that uses the art of letter writing to connect young people new to a city with older writers.

After it was featured in the Yorkshire Evening Post, the Writing Back project that connects students at the University of Leeds to older people across the region has soared in numbers.

Dorothy Corcoran, right, pictured with her penpal  Hannah Tomes ''Picture by Simon Hulme

Dorothy Corcoran, right, pictured with her penpal Hannah Tomes ''Picture by Simon Hulme

Initially set up by PhD student Georgina Binnie in a bid to tackle loneliness in older people in 2014, the project has now quadrupled in size since its first year to include 112 writers - with many of the newest participants having seen coverage of the project in the newspaper.

Initially, older participants came from organisations and community groups like St Michael’s Church in Headingley, Bramley Elderly Action and Otley Elderly Action, but now it has expanded to include people from across Yorkshire.

The majority of the students, who are matched with their penpals based on their interests, study at the university’s School of English.

They include Phoebe Neville-Evans, 18, who discovered a remarkable coincidence when paired with penal Margaret Quirke, 54,.

Writing Back founder Georgina Binnie''Picture by Simon Hulme

Writing Back founder Georgina Binnie''Picture by Simon Hulme

The first year English literature student, who is originally from Liverpool, found out that her penpal, who is also originally from the city, used to work with her father around 30 years ago..

Miss Neville-Evans said: “When I got allocated my penpal I pinned a piece of paper with her name on it to my noticeboard, and when my dad was visiting he spotted it and said he used to work with a Margaret Quirke. It was amazing - and they’ve since caught up on Facebook.

“I wanted to get involved with the project because when I first moved away I used to write to my grandparents and it’s something I really enjoy. Receiving a letter in the post makes you smile.”

The pair met for the first time this week, when a celebration event for the project was held in Headingley.

Ms Quirke, of Bramley, Leeds, said: “I like writing and receiving letters and really feel like it’s a dying art. I used to work at the university so when I saw the story in the Yorkshire Evening Post I wanted to get involved.

“Seeing your name on an envelope through the door is so much better than an email.”

Former English teacher and librarian Dorothy Corcoran, 72, was matched with fourth year English and Art History student Hannah Tomes.

Mrs Corcoran, of Strensall near York, “I don’t consider myself to be lonely but I do have some health issues which mean I can’t see or walk very well. I have always enjoyed letter writing, and thought it might be a chance to cheer somebody up and also get involved with young people again as I do miss teaching.

“We have discovered we have quite a bit in common, as part of her degree course she studied in Italy, where my husband and I have a little cottage, and she was amazed to discover that me and my husband had been on a date to see the first James Bond film.

“I’ve enjoyed corresponding with somebody at university and I’m still amazed that students don’t have to live in recommended accommodation. When I was at university we were supposed to be chaperoned in our room if we had a young man visiting.

“We just chat - but on paper.”

Miss Tomes, 21, who is originally from York, said she enjoyed taking part in the project as it was nice to “sit down and forget about your work for ten minutes and learn about someone else’s life”.

She added: “It was really nice to meet Dorothy and put a face to the name at last.”

Writing back founder Georgina Binnie, 27, said the scheme could be further expanded next year if it was to secure funding.

“A lot of our participants come via the Leeds’ Neighbourhood Networks, but it would be great to have more participants that don’t necessarily have social interactions or support already.”