Penpal project is writing the wrongs of loneliness epidemic

One is a Chinese postgraduate student in his mid 20s who until a few months ago had never before been to the UK, let alone Leeds.

Thursday, 21st December 2017, 9:07 am
Updated Thursday, 21st December 2017, 9:10 am

The other is a semi-retired grandmother with a love of letter writing.

In ordinary circumstances, they might never have met. But, thanks to the efforts of a unique penpal project founded in Leeds, Kun Li and Heather Wilson have formed a firm friendship that crosses cultural and generational boundaries, and is helping fight the modern scourge of loneliness.

The pals are part of Writing Back, which was the brainchild of Professor Georgina Binnie. The idea came about when Georgina was volunteering at a care home in Leeds whilst teaching at the University of Leeds’s School of English, and saw the chance to bring together two groups at risk of isolation for very different reasons.

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“When you are an international student, you can be in a small bubble and not really venture out further afield,” she says.

“But actually students can learn so much from people in the community.

“And I think having that exchange of cultures is important as well.”

The project has already signed up 155 people this year, with 20 people coming on board in the last few weeks alone.

For Kun and Heather, who have different experiences of loneliness, it has been a lifeline.

Heather, who has three 
penpals at the University, told the YEP: “I’m pre-retirement, I’m working part time, and I help with my grandchildren 
the rest of the time. But I’ve been through periods of 
loneliness myself and I’ve always been socially aware of what it’s like.

“I’ve always liked having penpals and writing letters to bring people together.

“It’s a two-way thing. So I write about my life and things I enjoy doing, and I encourage them with their university studies. I look forward to getting their letters.”

Kun, 26, came to Leeds just two months ago.

“I knew nothing about Leeds or the UK,” he says. “I was doing my PhD research and then just sitting at home.

“Sometimes I did feel very lonely.”

He has loved linking up with Heather, and the age difference is no barrier. “Older people know so much more about the city,” he says. “We can share our differences and our cultures.”

Heather is keen to praise the work of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission, which launched its first full report last week, with Writing Back being among several volunteer-led initiatives singled out for special praise.

“It’s very important,” she said. “It brings the issue to the forefront of people’s minds, that everybody can be lonely, and just to start communicating more.”

‘Brilliant’ work of Commission

the work of the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission is “brilliant”, says Dr Georgina Binnie. The Commission, founded by Mrs Cox before her death last year, recommends the UK needs a government-led strategy to combat a problem which affects nine million people. Jo’s sister Kim Leadbeater joined MP Rachel Reeves to launch the report last week. “Prior to this work, there was a real stigma around loneliness,” says Georgina. “If people just have a conversation about loneliness, if we all put our hands up and say ‘yes, I’m lonely at times’, that’s half the battle.”