Saffron and Shreya Patel, two sisters based in Boston, have a bigger heart than their own.
While still in school and college, the young female founders are passionate in volunteering to the community. Today, they have gathered more than 100,000 cards and letters by heartfelt souls around the world to express their love to the seniors who are in lockdown loneliness.
RARE Magazine digs into the soul sisters’ story of how it all started and how they have impacted and influenced societies with their initiative of letters against isolation during the COVID-19.
RARE: Tell us about yourselves.
Shreya: My name is Shreya Patel, a freshman from Washington University in St Louis soon. I have a very keen interest in entrepreneurship, and getting connected with the community gives me a sense of belonging. I share the same interest in volunteering with my younger sister, Saffron, a grade 10 high school student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has traveled from cities to countries, from local museums, STEM clubs to hospitals on volunteering programs.
Saffron: Shreya and I come from a close-knitted family from the United Kingdom. We are incredibly close with our grandparents. In 2014, we moved to the US and had to bid farewell to our uncles, aunts, cousins, and our extended family. Nevertheless, we make a point to return to England during our holidays. The last time we went to England was in summer 2019. Then, the global pandemic happened in 2020, and we are shattered that we can’t see our grandparents face-to-face until today.
RARE: What struggles did you face during the lockdown?
Shreya: When the global pandemic hit the world, I think like many people, we ignored the warning signs all through winter. When it hit the US, we were surprised, and within weeks our lives changed completely. It was around mid-March 2020 when everything started to shut down in Boston. First, school shut down, then people started panicking and bulk buying things. Then, we didn’t leave our house, and when we did, we had to wear masks. And that time, I was on a gap year, so I had been working at a finance startup. When the markets crashed, I was let go.
Saffron: For me, the drastic change was overwhelming. One day I was in the classroom, and the next, all my classes were over zoom calls. Before we knew it, the school went entirely virtual! We were miserable at home watching the news for updates. Our knowledge about COVId-19 was limited, and we learned that the senior citizens were more vulnerable and had a higher risk of deadly disease. We were anxious about our grandparents’ well-being in England while here in Boston.
RARE: Why did you decide to focus on the senior citizen age group instead of other target audiences?
Shreya: While the world was shifting under our feet because of the pandemic, we couldn’t just sit still. We were looking for ways to give back and connect with the community. Throughout late March/ early April, we started to see some fantastic charity organizations pop up, such as delivering meals to healthcare workers or remotely teaching young students. However, we also noticed a huge gap: we couldn’t find any organizations serving seniors, who are arguably the most affected by the pandemic/ the group that has been affected the longest by the pandemic.
Saffron: As grandchildren, we were very concerned about grandparents. Since we are far from each other, we couldn’t just pop over to wave at them from the window. So, we called them and texted them every day to stop them from getting lonely.
Our grandparents are very social people. Our grandmother, who we call Ba, used to go to the gym every day before the pandemic. She had a group of friends she went with and was always chatting with them before/ after her gym classes. Our other gramps are involved members of their communities and love to golf! Despite our daily calls and texts, we noticed the effects of isolation start to take a toll on them. Shreya and I searched for ways to uplift our grandparents when Ba stumbled upon the solution herself! It’s through handwritten letters.
RARE: What inspired you to pursue handwritten letters and cards that heal seniors in lockdown loneliness?
Shreya: Since the pandemic started in March, our grandparents have been socially-isolating in their homes to protect themselves from Coronavirus. Through our regular online communications with our grandmother, she told us that her friends sent handwritten cards. She sounded ecstatic to receive this small gesture of connection meant the world to her.
Saffron: Watching our grandmother’s joy made us realize that many other seniors may also be feeling disconnected and that they may appreciate a letter. This led us to email a few nursing homes asking if we could write letters. The response was an overwhelming yes!
RARE: How did you scale the Letters Against from the US and reach other parts of the world?
Saffron: Letters Against Isolation started as a project for just Shreya and me to write to a few local seniors. However, it quickly became apparent that this was not a project we could undertake alone. We wanted to serve more seniors because senior loneliness is such a widespread problem, and we knew that we couldn’t singlehandedly write all of those letters! So, we founded Letters Against Isolation to recruit other volunteers to join us in combating senior loneliness by sending letters and cards filled with joy to seniors.
We grew exponentially! This meant that we had to do a lot of learning as we went. For example, I built our website to become a resource for our volunteers. Volunteers can sign-up to write letters, and care homes can sign up to receive letters (unfortunately, we cannot serve individual seniors in their homes due to privacy issues). The website also has a blog that I post on a bi-weekly basis. I have interviewed the seniors we serve and the volunteers who write for our blog. We also post inspiration blog posts for what to write about/ how to decorate cards. There is a lot of resources on the website, and it is helpful for volunteers to be able to refer to a resource where everything is in one place!
Shreya: We started Letter Against Isolation in April 2020, and we began to make small goals. We were surprised that we smashed many of our goals one by one. I can remember our purpose of recruiting 10 volunteers and collectively sending 100 letters.
Now, 10 months later, our current goal is to recruit 15,000 volunteers and collectively send 150,000 letters and cards to the seniors we serve by April 6, which is our 1 year anniversary of founding Letters Against Isolation. Currently, we have roughly 13,500 volunteers and 140,000 letters and cards. We also set a goal to send 100,000 letters and cards by January 1, 2021, which we also successfully achieved! We quickly realized that this was not a project that we could undertake alone, so we have begun recruiting volunteers online. We are very blessed to all the heart-centered souls who have embarked with us on this journey.
RARE: What is your advice to visionary female founders and entrepreneurs out there who wants to turn purpose into passion?
Saffron: That is a great question. I think my greatest advice would be to build systems that will scale the first time. When we first got started, we did not expect to grow into the organization we have today, so we built everything to work for a small organization. We’d email each volunteer to write their letters individually. When we began to pick up traction, we had to spend a lot of time reworking our sign-up system to handle many more volunteers.
Shreya: Just get started! There is a tendency to wait for absolutely everything to be perfect before launching any new venture or product. The issue is, your first attempt will never be excellent! There will always be something you overlooked, some fresh perspective your customer will give you. The most important thing is to capitalize on the moment and be flexible. We have had to learn so much as we go with Letters Against Isolation. These lessons that we have known are not things that you can prepare for. You can only learn them by taking the leap and getting started. We are open to change and always ask for feedback from the volunteers to keep improving Letter Against Isolation.
Written by Nizie Lokman