Sonia Kinkhabwala, Mary Pelson foster community engagement from home

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COURTESY PHOTOS / SONIA KINKHABWALA AND MARY PELSON

After the College of William and Mary suspended in-person classes last month, many students dealt with missing campus and not being able to see friends amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing the novel virus’s sweeping effects on both the university community and Williamsburg, Sonia Kinkhabwala ‘21 and Mary Pelson ‘21 created a new letter-writing partnership between College students and local senior citizens, which they hope will alleviate loneliness and keep students in touch with their ‘college town’ while at home.

Kinkhabwala and Pelson both have worked with senior communities in Williamsburg before. When the COVID-19 outbreak intensified in mid-March, they recognized it as a particularly damaging phenomenon for older locals given its likelihood to intensify severe issues with loneliness and isolation that many elderly populations face.

“I was thinking of those residents and how they must be feeling right now, and also my own grandparents, and really wanting to pivot that programming into something that could address the needs of older adults and their hidden vulnerabilities to the virus.”

“I was thinking of those residents and how they must be feeling right now, and also my own grandparents, and really wanting to pivot that programming into something that could address the needs of older adults and their hidden vulnerabilities to the virus,” Kinkhabwala said.

Since Pelson was abroad spring semester, she felt an exceptionally strong desire to keep in touch with her Williamsburg community, already having been away from the College for several months before COVID-19 closed campus. These sentiments led her to develop plans for a new partnership between students and elderly Williamsburg residents, which got her in touch with Kinkhabwala after the two students were brought together on the recommendation of government professor John Lombardini.

“I was definitely missing the Williamsburg community, and not just the campus community, but just the entirety of Williamsburg,” Pelson said. “And I realized talking to a lot of my friends who had been on campus this spring and they were really mourning the loss of that community and wanted some way to stay engaged.”

These letters are directed to each community’s programming director, who will allocate the note to a resident that they feel particularly needs social interaction. The resident will then send their own introductory letter back to the student, which Kinkhabwala and Pelson hope will culminate in a long-term pen pal relationship, capable of providing some comfort during social distancing protocols.

“I was definitely missing the Williamsburg community, and not just the campus community, but just the entirety of Williamsburg. And I realized talking to a lot of my friends who had been on campus this spring and they were really mourning the loss of that community and wanted some way to stay engaged.”

To address gaps in community engagement created by COVID-19, Kinkhabwala and Pelson reached out to several retirement and assisted living communities around Williamsburg, ultimately establishing partnerships with Patriots Colony, Edgeworth Assisted Living and Memory Care, Brookdale Senior Living and Williamsburg’s Human Services Department. Then they established an online form where College students can sign up to write an initial introductory letter to one of these communities.

“We really wanted to make sure that these letters went to people who needed a little pickup and were really willing to start that relationship,” Pelson said.

As of April 15, Kinkhabwala and Pelson said that 150 College students have signed up for the letter writing partnership. While they are encouraged by the project’s short-term success, they also hope the stronger bonds between College students and Williamsburg’s elderly population will continue even after COVID-19 dissipates from public life.

“That was one of the things that was particularly cool about matching William and Mary students and professors, is that we’re still going to have that connection to Williamsburg even after this is over and then the residents are still going to be in Williamsburg,” Pelson said. “So once this is all over, we can continue pen pals, or meet face to face. Just having that relationship we hope will stay.”

Beyond introducing College students to someone new during their time at home, Kinkhabwala and Pelson said they want this partnership to remind students of the importance of the Williamsburg community, and approach their remaining time in Williamsburg with renewed appreciation for what lies beyond the College’s walls.

“I also hope that William and Mary students will take away that we all need each other, and that’s not a bad thing,” Kinkhabwala said. “… The Williamsburg community can also be something that people really hold dear to their experiences here.”