Frontline workers, especially health care workers, face not only physical risk of COVID-19, but also the psychological strain of supporting the public’s needs throughout the pandemic while fearing for their own lives. Recognizing this challenge, seven college students, Preethi Kumaran, Samira Mehta, Youvin Chung, Heta Patel, Rupa Palanki, Joey Lohmann and Lillian Hong, started Lockdown Letters, a project that sends letters of appreciation to the front line workers.
“Psychologically, front line work can be difficult, especially when health care workers are comforting patients in so much pain without relatives. We wanted to help by providing one-on-one support through letters that people sign, draw on and really make unique and personalized,” said Lohmann.
Lockdown Letters has sent over 7,000 letters to over 86 facilities, including New York Presbyterian, Massachusetts General Hospital and UNC Medical Center. According to the Lockdown Letters website, they have worked with 26 facilities in the Northeast, 17 in the West, 28 in the South and 15 in the Midwest. Some hospitals display the thank-you letters in display cases for staff to look at. The Lockdown Letters team plans on continuing their work until the pandemic is over.
How Lockdown Letters Got Started
Lockdown Letters was founded early in the pandemic, as the student founders grappled with what they could do to help support their communities.
“We started it in March when everything shut down. Everyone felt a collective stuck feeling of not being able to do anything and seeing these horrible things on TV. We were trying to weigh our options, and see what way we could get involved,” said Kumaran.
When hospitals began sending photos of hospital staff holding up letters back to the Lockdown Letters project, Kumaran realized just how impactful their project could be.
“When we got the first photos back from New York Presbyterian, that surprised me. At that point, New York was the epicenter of the pandemic and it seemed like a nightmare,” said Kumaran. “Here were 30 doctors and nurses holding up our letters and making the time to engage with us. For me, it was the first moment I saw our idea become a reality.”
Who Writes the Letters?
Volunteers who send letters to Lockdown Letters include people of all ages, including young students, college students, adults and senior citizens. Letters are submitted to Lockdown Letters via a Google Form, and people who write letters by hand can scan the letters to digitize them.
“We have had people from ages 3 to 73, students from our colleges, alumni, people from our communities back home. We are trying to diversify because the bulk are students, but we do have quite the range,” said Lohmann.
According to Lohmann, outreach ideas include working with elementary school teachers to make these letters an optional assignment and reaching out to retirement home facilities to engage with potential elderly volunteers. However, the online format can be a challenge for some senior volunteers.
Where Do The Letters Go?
As the pandemic progressed and spread, so did the geographic scope of Lockdown Letters’ distribution, which has now reached 34 states. While a large number of letters are being sent to hospitals in coastal cities like New York City and LA, fewer are reaching rural areas. Lockdown Letters is working to remedy this gap.
“We aren’t getting as many responses from remote, rural medical centers. We are going to reach out to more remote centers though, because as cases rise in rural areas, staff may need a pick-me-up throughout the day,” said Lohmann.
“In the beginning, we were sending lots of letters to Manhattan, New York Presbyterian, and now we are sending them all over the place,” said Lohmann.
Reaching Frontline Workers Beyond The Hospitals
In addition to trying to reach more states, the Lockdown Letters team is working on more comprehensively reaching all frontline workers, including food service workers. However, this effort has come with challenges.
“Unlike a hospital, which has a media center to handle promotional efforts for their staff, the food industry doesn’t really have that kind of infrastructure in place. Only really large companies contacted us back,” said Hong.
According to Hong, in addition to distribution challenges, many volunteer-contributed letters are focused on health care worker-specific challenges, so the team is now working on growing their collection of general and food work-related letters to distribute.
How To Help
If you want to write letters for the Lockdown Letters project, you can type or handwrite them using the templates on their website, and then submit them via a Google Form. In addition to writing letters, Lohmann requests that people reach out to Lockdown Letters with suggestions of facilities to partner with, especially in remote areas.
“In the beginning we were receiving lots of letters, and we still need letters, but we would also appreciate suggestions of new facilities if you think a hospital near you would benefit,” said Lohmann.
What Happens Next
Even as the Lockdown Letters founders prepare to return to the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University this fall, they plan on continuing this project until the pandemic is over.
“This is a situation where it doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, probably not in the fall and maybe not in the spring,” said Kumaran. “Now that everything is set up, we can handle it between the seven of us until the need is gone.”