• Jannelle Ho

Groundup Features: Penpals in The Community

Updated: Sep 29


Completed pen pal letters are placed into envelopes and posted out. (PHOTO: PENPALS IN THE COMMUNITY)

In this edition of Groundup Features: we caught up with Valerie, founder of Penpals in The Community, an initiative that hopes to use letter-writing as a platform to connect seniors and the younger generation. Hear from Valerie as she shares about the steps she took to start her initiative, and her future plans for Penpals in The Community.


Hi Valerie, thanks for joining us today! Could you please share a bit about yourself and what Penpals in The Community does, for our readers!

Hi everyone, I am Valerie and I am currently working as a Marketing Analyst in the hospitality industry.


I founded Penpals in The Community during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker last year. During that time, I was writing letters to my friends, as it was something that I personally enjoyed doing. Subsequently, I chanced upon an article that reported on a nursing home which started a pen pal programme between their volunteers and residents. This sparked the idea for starting Penpals in The Community, as I thought I could try to do something similar for a wider community. I decided on seniors as the target audience because letter writing is quite a traditional form of communications. Also, since many of them are not adept in using tech gadgets or social messaging apps, I felt that it would be a good way to engage them through letter writing.


When a volunteer or senior signs up for Penpals in The Community, we will enquire on their language preferences for reading and writing, and their hobbies or interests. We will then proceed to match them to a pen pal, based on the information they have provided.


You mentioned your initiative was inspired by the nursing home’s pen pal programme between seniors and volunteers. What were some of the first steps you took to take the inspiration to life?

I had signed up for the Groundup Sandbox incubator programme in end 2019/early 2020 and got connected with Kai and Si Ying of the Groundup Central team, when they contacted me to update on the programme’s postponement due to COVID-19.


At that point of time, I did not have a concrete idea yet, but I wanted to try and see if I could start something to contribute back. When I had the idea for Penpals in The Community, I immediately texted Si Ying to tell her about it. I shared with her that I was unsure of how to start the initiative because I did not know if there was a procedure to go through, especially with contacting partners I wanted to work with.


I sent Si Ying a simple deck to show her how I envisioned the whole idea to be. In the deck, I also mentioned wanting to partner with KampungKakis, a groundup initiative which kickstarted a neighbourhood buddy system to support the elderly, low-income families, and vulnerable residents during the COVID-19 crisis. Si Ying knew the founders of KampungKakis, so she helped to connect us together. This was how we started the pilot for our pen pal programme.


Could you share more about the projects Penpals in The Community is working on, currently?

One of the biggest groups we are trying to reach out to, is seniors who are living alone. I personally feel that this group of seniors are those who really need the connection and concern from the community.


As mentioned earlier, we first connected with KampungKakis as they had a database of seniors who were living alone in the community. Subsequently, we added Senior Activity Centres (SAC) and eldercare centres to the list of partners we work with.


The seniors would head down to these centres to participate in activities, and we try to incorporate letter writing as part of their activity curriculum.


To sum up, our current focus would be to reach out to more Senior Centres as well as Residents’ Committees (RC) in the neighbourhood, both of which would have a database of seniors.


And what’s next for Penpals in the Community?

Moving forward, my hope is for us to be able to host more in-person visits, especially after the COVID-19 situation gets better.


Before Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) occurred, we held a few meetups with the seniors. Since Penpals in The Community started end of last year, some of the pen pals from the pioneer batch have been writing to each other for around three to four months.


I asked these pen pals if they were interested to meet up virtually via Zoom, and they were happy to! We also paid a visit to some of the pen pal’s homes during Chinese New Year last year, after getting consent from both parties!


Penpals in The Community will also be working with a school and its students for their Values in Action (VIA) programme. One of the students reached out to us, sharing that they were keen to partner with us for their project. We just started the pilot session with one class. If the pilot is successful, we would explore working with other schools and students.


Lastly, one of our longer-term plans is to create a website to collect stories of our pen pal community. We hope these stories will inspire those who have read it, and that they will join us and give letter writing a go. We hope that it will create a ripple effect.


We want to learn more about you! Who or what keeps you going as founder of Penpals in the Community?

At the start, I was very excited about starting my own initiative because letter writing was something I enjoy doing and have been doing for a while. After we got into the flow of things, it was very encouraging to hear from the seniors, who would ask on the whereabouts of their next letter.


Receiving positive feedback from both the seniors and volunteers encourages me to continue this initiative and gives me the hope to reach out to more people.


A shoutout to my close friends as well – they were the first two pen pals of this initiative! I had shared the initial idea with them so we could bounce ideas off each other, and I am thankful for the support they provided.


What were some of the challenges you encountered and how are you actively solving these challenges?

I think the biggest challenge was reaching out to SACs or elder homes to get their agreement or buy-in to joining Penpals in The Community. It is quite a new idea and may take a lot of manpower effort on their end, if the staff members are needed.


It was very difficult in the beginning because people may not necessarily trust our groundup, especially when we need to request for their residential addresses to facilitate the mailing of letters. Thankfully, with the increasing recognition from media outlets and support from other groundup initiatives, it has helped us a lot.


This is not so much a challenge, but something I am trying to work on: reaching out to seniors who are illiterate. Even though we do encourage seniors who are unable to read or write, to draw as another mode of storytelling, it is still something that is not fully explored yet. We hope to be able to make it more accessible and inclusive for all seniors.


Any advice for those who want to start up their own groundup?

To be honest, I am still very new in the groundup space and there is still a lot for me to learn but my advice would be to just try. You will never know what will come out of your experience.


Personally, I did not expect that Penpals in The Community would turn out the way it is now! In the beginning, I was quite hesitant to take that first step of sending out an email or text to Si Ying but I figured there was no harm in doing so. At the very most, I would receive no replies but giving it a try meant that there was a possibility of having a small positive impact.


Some steps one can take would be to look out for groundup resources that are already available and see if there is anything that interest you. If the idea you have in mind has not been done, start planning for it, give it a try and see how it goes!


What is a piece of advice you would tell your younger self?

Do not be afraid to try.


Since I was young, I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to try but I was afraid of the different outcomes that might occur and wondered if people would not be supportive of the ideas.


As I grew older, I came to the realisation that there was no harm in trying.


So, yes, just try!


Finally, how do you hope your initiative helps Singapore become the City of Good?

For Penpals in The Community, I hope that more working adults can join us and participate in the programme! From my own experience of transitioning into working life, I realised that it really does take more effort to volunteer our time.


Beyond the compulsory school volunteer programmes that each student goes through, I hope our initiative and the simple act of letter writing will encourage and nurture more individuals to make giving back to society, a part of their life.


Fun-fact question! If you had to choose between email or letters as your mode of communication for the rest of your life, which would you choose?

I would choose letter writing.


Compared to emails, letters have a different feel to it when you receive them, even though it takes longer to arrive.



Interested in joining as a volunteer pen pal?

Check out https://www.instagram.com/penpalsinthecomm/ for more information.


(Do note it may take some time before you get matched to a senior penpal!)


* This feature has been edited for clarity

About the author:

Jannelle is Content Producer at Groundup Central. Armed with her camera, she looks forward to meeting & documenting the everyday heroes of our lives.