Let’s call him Don. Don is old. He lives in an assisted living facility. A few weeks ago he got something in the mail. It was a colorful envelope, with hand-drawn flowers, hearts, and squiggly handwriting. He didn’t recognize the return address.
“What in the…?” mumbled Don, holding the card. The grizzled former Vietnam vet is not known for using PG-rated interjections.
To say Don is lonely is an understatement. In the half year since the pandemic began, Don has had maybe four people visit.
On a daily basis he sees only nurses, orderlies, cafeteria workers, and the 96-year-old guy down the hall who is always singing show tunes to a sock puppet.
Don tore open the envelope. It was a frilly card, with lots of artwork, and girly handwriting. You can always spot the handwriting of a girl. It’s very loopy.
The card read: “You are loved.”
He flipped it over. There were no more clues.
The whole thing made him laugh. He even looked around the room to make sure a hidden camera crew wasn’t lurking nearby.
When his nurse came to change his sheets, he said, “Did you see the card I got?”
The nurse looked at it. “Who’s it from? Your grandkids?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t know who it’s from.”
Don is not on anyone’s radar screen anymore. He’s what you would call a shut-in. And when COVID-19 came along, he became more than just a shut-in. He felt like he became a memory.
He placed the card on his nightstand, where he could see it in plain view.
“You are loved,” it said.
And now I want to introduce you to Jessica Ong. She is a 14-year-old at Westview High School in Atlanta. When the pandemic began, she started making greeting cards to pass the time.
It all started by writing letters to her grandmother and her aunt. Then it mushroomed into something else. Jessica began writing cards to complete strangers. She wrote to first responders, hospital workers, and nursing homes.
At first it was just something to do. It was a hobby, something constructive. It could have all ended right there. But it didn’t. Jessica started a club.
Her club is called “Cards 4 Kindness.” The idea was simple: send cards to strangers. Here’s a sample from one of Jessica’s handmade cards to a hospital worker:
“Thank you so much for everything you’re doing right now. I wanna let you know that our community recognizes all the work you’ve done.”
Right from the get-go, Jessica’s club started getting members. And these members were taking care of business.
Within the first six weeks of the pandemic, the club had already sent one thousand cards. And things weren’t slowing down. Teenagers were joining from all over the U.S.
There’s Carlos, a high-school senior from Miami, who says: “I have always loved helping others and inspiring others to persevere.”
And Noor, a sophomore from Houston. “I love animals, and my biggest dream is to become an oncologist.”
Frank, a junior from Texas. “I’m a member of the basketball team, and I also enjoy playing the piano in my spare time. I am really looking forward to spreading the gift of kindness to others.”
And Sofia. “I’m a third-year neuroscience PhD student from Baylor College, studying the plasticity of underlying contextual fear memory formation. And I’m glad to become part of this beautiful initiative.”
She sounds fun.
Emilia, a high-school junior from Southern California. “I plan to pursue a career in orthopedic pediatrics so I can treat the young people of the world to overcome skeletal issues.”
Gina, a college student in Phoenix. “I hope to be a physician or a physician’s assistant, I’m super excited to spread love to nursing homes, especially in these difficult times.”
These are just some of the first wave members. More volunteers started signing up from other parts of the world. Pretty soon you had people like:
Nia (age 15), Wales, U.K. “I love making people smile.”
Angela, high-school freshman, Philippines. “I’m very excited to make this world a kinder place for everyone.”
Joan (16), Netherlands. “I’m so excited to share love and positiveness with other people.”
Stephanie (18), Bolivia: “I want to generate a positivity effect.”
Chole, high-school junior, Ontario. “I’m excited to be spreading positivity in my community.”
And Cyrine, a college student from the Philippines. “My heart yearns to bring comfort and a safe space to those who need it. I am quite excited about bringing joy and putting smiles on their faces.”
As of now, Jessica has over 400 card-writers in 22 countries who write to strangers all over the world. She calls these friends “ambassadors.” And even though most of them are barely old enough to have driver’s licenses, their words circulate the globe. These kids write a shipload of cards.
How many cards is a “shipload” exactly?
Take Leah. She just finished writing 500 letters to people living in the Elderwood Assisted Living Home in Hamburg, New York. I don’t know if Leah’s hands were cramped after writing that many cards, but my wrist hurts just writing this sentence.
The club’s colorful envelopes have been multiplying faster than bacteria. They soar across the Atlantic, Pacific, and find their way into the unseen corners, and sterile nursing homes. The humble cards appear in mailboxes, almost mysteriously.
Like the card that still sits on Don’s bedside table. It stands upright, splayed open, beside his blood thinners and reading glasses. Before he goes to sleep each night he reads it. Sometimes he reads it out loud.
“You are loved,” it keeps telling him.
Then he turns out the light, rolls over, and says those words aloud to himself one more time.
Just so he doesn’t forget them.