Letters for Rose, started in Montclair by two Montclair High School students, has grown into a national volunteering effort designed to reduce the loneliness of the elderly in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Layla Hurwitz (l.) and Annika Aristimuno.

MHS juniors Annika Aristimuno and Layla Hurwitz came up with the idea as sophomores at Montclair High School after the pandemic shut down their regular visits as volunteers to Family Of Caring Nursing Home in Montclair. Here, they tell the story of how Letters for Rose came to be:

Prior to the pandemic, we were regular volunteers to the Family Of Caring Nursing Home in Montclair. We would visit weekly to talk, play games, and build connections with residents.

During our weekly visits, we became deeply connected to a resident named Rose. The first time we met Rose, her eyes lit up with happiness. She started talking immediately about her childhood, life in general, and had the spunkiest personality. When the in-person volunteering ended due to the pandemic, we knew we wanted to keep in touch with Rose and the other residents. We understood the value that interaction with others had on the residents and the difference we were making in their lives.

Annika Aristimuno (le.) and Layla Hurwitz deliver letters to Family of Caring.

Through this need to continue the interaction, Letters for Rose was born. We decided to organize teenagers in Montclair to write letters to the residents – letters that included artwork, poems and personal notes. These letters were collected and brought to the nursing home with attention given to COVID-19-related concerns.

When we received an incredible response from the nursing home staff and the residents, we decided to first expand the idea to different towns and then nationally. We reached out to our friends, who reached out to others and within a few weeks time, we found hundreds of students who wanted to participate and volunteer their time to help.

We organized meetings and assigned volunteer leaders for each chapter; these leaders created their own teams and began to organize others in their own towns. The team started to call local nursing homes in their areas, initiated a letter writing campaign and began delivery of the personalized letters and artwork to the nursing homes.

Sensing how quickly we had organized interest, we realized it would be important to have a structure where people understood what their roles were. We created a chapter model with leadership roles that have clear responsibilities and could easily be replicated from state to state. We also wanted our volunteers to feel connected to each other because the residents aren’t the only ones feeling isolated. We have regular team Zoom meetings! We are all around the same age, and because we share the interest of service, Letters for Rose has become a fun community where the volunteers are now friends all over the country.

We have been working to build the foundation for Letters for Rose. We have built a highly networked group of student volunteers. We work with each chapter to navigate specific challenges. For example, our Brooklyn chapter didn’t have easy access to cars so we found another transportation method for managing the letters. One challenge we had to address was privacy issues around the nursing home residents. We wanted the letters to be personalized, so we created a release form where facilities can choose what information they can disclose. Some chapters have found ways around confidentiality issues such as making the letters personal by room number.

Because we have hundreds of volunteers in an organized chapter network across the country, we have thought about ways to expand in the future. We are not sure what we will add on, but once the letter deliveries are flowing, we think we could use our network in another productive direction.

Letters for Rose now has chapters in over 20 states with more than 300 teen volunteers and has created and delivered hundreds of letters. The goal is to get a chapter of Letters for Rose in every state and to continue to support our elderly population during this time of crisis. Here’s a post thanking Letters For Rose’s Hartford County chapter in Maryland for letters sent to Hummingbird Manor Assisted Living.

If you would are interested in writing letters or making artwork, please click this link. Anyone can write a letter or make artwork. Each person must fill out the form, children are welcome to participate!

For more information, visit Letters for Rose on Instagram or email letterforroseproject@gmail.com