Operation Smilegram brightens lives of seniors

Smilegram gift bag
Credit: Penn State

In an effort to alleviate the isolation and loneliness that many seniors experienced during the coronavirus pandemic, the Penn State Berks community came together for a new initiative – Operation Smilegram, in which students, faculty and staff wrote letters to residents in senior living communities. 

This was a semester-long project instituted in spring of 2021 by the Penn State Berks Center for Academic and Community Engagement (CACE). The project became so popular that it was expanded to include letters to frontline workers.

According to Donna Chambers, director of CACE and associate teaching professor of Spanish, “As the pandemic keeps many of us apart, our senior citizens are feeling more isolated than ever.”

She explained, “The program is very simple. Participants may choose to write a letter once a week, once every two weeks, once a month, or on special occasions dates such as Valentine's Day, Easter, etc. The letter can be short, like a telegram, or longer; it may contain a funny cartoon or a short poem – anything the writer feels is appropriate and it can be typed or handwritten. Writers then send the letter via email, and once received, they are printed, put in an envelope, and delivered to the participating senior citizen living communities. The participating communities have assured me that residents will be happy to have something to look forward to on a regular basis.”   

Thirty participants from Penn State Berks wrote letters this semester, including students, faculty, and staff. The letters were sent to various senior resident communities in Reading and Lancaster. The residents at Country Meadows, in Reading, were so grateful that they sent a basket of “Granny Final Exam Survival Kits” to campus for students, consisting of a bottle of water, a granola bar, and a highlighter marker.