Care-Mail delivers pandemic pen pals to juveniles in lockdown

Care-Mail delivers pandemic pen pals to juveniles in lockdown

Jordan, an undergraduate student at Georgetown University, suggested taking deep breaths to clear the head.

Bernadette, a gardener in New Mexico, sent a sketch of flowers in a vase.

Frank, a podiatrist in Oregon, offered a line from a poem famously quoted by Nelson Mandela: “I am the captain of my soul.”

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These are among the small gifts that more than 1,200 volunteers throughout the country have been sending in letters to youths in detention centers since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“I find myself crying as I read them,” said David Domenici, who directs the Care-Mail Project at the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings in Columbia. “There are just all sorts of amazing people out there telling students they love them, that they’re thinking of them and hoping for them.”

While some Americans complain about the hardships of their locked-down lives, the nearly 43,000 youths who were already locked away in juvenile halls, adult prisons and residential programs have become more isolated than ever. For most of them, that means no family visits. No special programs. No face-to-face meetings with teachers. But every week, compassion arrives in the hundreds of mostly handwritten letters enclosed in the homework packets they’ve been getting since classes were suspended.

“It’s sad for me not to see my friends, so it must be really hard for them,” said Pilar Cobarrubia, 10, who, together with her 12-year-old brother, Diego, in Bend, Ore., has been writing to a 15-year-old boy at the Montgomery City Youth Center in Missouri.

“Right now in my free time I am painting a skateboard,” Pilar wrote in one letter. “Hope you are also finding a way to pass up time.”

The program, which started in April, was initially planned to last one month but was extended through May. Domenici, a co-founder of the Maya Angelou Schools, a network of alternative schools in the Washington area, has suggested volunteers share lighthearted personal information — such as favorite books, movies and food — along with perhaps a few tips to help the youths cope with the crisis.

“I wish I could write to 100 kids,” said Lucretia Murphy, who lives in Tampa and is senior director of JFF, a national nonprofit devoted to economic advancement through workforce development. “In the best of circumstances, they say heartbreaking things like, ‘This is the first time anyone ever told me I was smart.’ They always need encouragement but especially now, with the fear of covid-19. I can’t imagine how they’re processing all this.”

Up to three-fourths of the 2 million U.S. youths arrested every year have some sort of mental illness or disorder, including depression, anxiety and PTSD, which research has shown can be triggered by newly fearful circumstances.

At last count, 474 youths and 561 staff members at juvenile detention facilities throughout the country have tested positive for the virus, according to the Sentencing Project. In some counties, authorities have tried to stop the spread by keeping youths in their rooms for 23 hours a day.

“Just felt good getting a letter from someone I don’t know telling me to keep my head up and stuff,” a teen boy at the Northeast Nebraska Juvenile Services Center wrote to Cary Gang, a painter and vocalist in New York City. Gang has been writing to three youths, introducing herself as “someone from the universe” and signing the letters “your new friend.”

Domenici’s nonprofit runs schools at the juvenile detention center and adult jail in New Orleans and provides support to dozens of other schools in youth facilities throughout the country. Word of his Care-Mail program spread quickly after he wrote about it on Facebook. Soon he had a strikingly varied cadre of volunteers, including a farmer in Virginia, a law professor in Hawaii and a neuroscientist in California. Others include several students based in Norway, Spain and Rwanda as well as Frank Cobarrubia, the podiatrist in Bend, who signed up with his two children, Pilar and Diego.

“Our lockdown is laughable next to theirs,” Cobarrubia said in a telephone interview. “So I felt it would be selfish not to do it.”

While his children have corresponded with the boy in Missouri, Cobarrubia has written to three other youths. His letters include snippets of his daily life since he has reduced his office hours. He describes mowing the lawn and working on a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The volunteers aren’t told what the youths they’re writing to did to land in detention, and several said they didn’t care.

Gang, in New York, said she sought to write in a way that wouldn’t sound patronizing.

“FYI, I hated being a teenager,” she wrote to one youth, later adding that she had learned since then “there are always people around who can give you help with just about everything and anything you can think of. You might have to keep searching and some people will be more useful than others but I think that’s true for everyone, no matter where they come from or who they are.”

Some of the letter-writers said they were enjoying the excuse to engage in the all-but-lost art of pen-pal correspondence.

“I’m 50, so I’m old enough to remember what that’s like from having pen pals in junior high,” said Murphy, who has been exchanging letters with five teen girls, including a 16-year-old at the Wilson Creek Group Home in Missouri. “I enjoy it and think all week about what I should write.”

Not all of the youths have written back, but in a few cases they’ve offered gifts of their own.

A writer at the Nebraska youth center sent Gang a sketch of a letter winging its way from his detention hall to Gang’s apartment building in New York City, while Murphy’s 16-year-old pen pal in Missouri returned her words of encouragement in a message to her two sons.

“With the COVID 19 going on, your boys cannot enjoy summer as they would like,” the girl wrote, “but tell them to make the best out of it and every single situation that comes their way.”

Murphy said she wasn’t surprised by the message.

“In my experience, most of these kids have really big hearts,” she said. “They will match what you send out to them — and more.”