By Stephanie Jorritsma

Writing is a passion of mine, and I believe that words can be powerful forces for good in the world. However, I never expected that this year the world would go on lock-down due to a pandemic, and that during that time I would find myself writing notes and letters to people I had never met.

I never planned to write to strangers, and I probably wouldn’t have attempted to do it on my own. My letters were the result of a note-writing project in my leadership class at the University of Jamestown. I am part of the university’s Character in Leadership program, and our class was in charge of planning and performing a community service project by the end of the semester. In the first half of the semester, our class had made plans to host a community-wide food drive for the Salvation Army and to volunteer at the North Dakota State Hospital (NDSH) in Jamestown. We made our plans, contacted the necessary organizations, and prepared to begin our projects when we returned to campus from spring break. 

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

Unfortunately, COVID-19 swept the country, our classes were all transferred online, and two weeks later we were staring at each other over Zoom and wondering what we were supposed to do. The world around us seemed to be in chaos, people around us were struggling, and we didn’t know how to help when we couldn’t come within six feet of the people who needed us the most.

During the meeting, our class regrouped and chose a new service project: writing notes of encouragement to people in need. We set up a nomination form and people began submitting names and sharing reasons why those people needed encouragement. We heard stories of healthcare professionals working tirelessly to keep others safe, individuals facing loneliness in long-term care facilities, and countless other powerful stories. We began dividing up the names, and each nominated person received a note, whether through an email, letter, card, postcard, or other form of writing. Our class also coordinated with the state hospital, and we sent notes to several groups of staff and residents at the hospital.  

As our project went on, writing the notes became increasingly difficult for me. My first notes went to people I knew, and I felt fairly certain that the recipients would appreciate them (I even received a thank-you for one of them). However, when I decided to write to strangers on the list, I found myself staring at blank paper and feeling lost. How could I encourage these people when they didn’t even know me? I wanted to thank them for the work they were doing and encourage them to not lose hope, but I felt unqualified and unsure of how to do so. Finally, after a lot of thought, I wrote my notes to the strangers on my list. I had no idea how the notes would be received, but I put them in the mailbox and hoped they would understand what I was trying to say. 

The semester came to a close, and we sent our final notes, closed the nomination form, and looked back at what we had accomplished. Our class of 10 sent 58 notes of encouragement to individuals and groups across a number of states. We knew many people would not have the time or ability to respond, but the thank-you letters we did receive encouraged us and reminded us of what our letters meant to our recipients. North Dakota State Hospital Administrator Tonya Perkins shares the impact that our encouragement had at NDSH, which received almost 30 notes. 

“The letters we received from the students offered us the encouragement and support we needed at this difficult time,” she says. “After receiving her letter, our infection control nurse informed me that it brought her tears of joy just knowing that the students cared about her and her work. We are forever grateful that the students thought of NDSH during its time of need and for the service project that they took on.”

Looking back on our project, I also realized I had learned a lesson that went far beyond writing letters. I thought back to our class’s first Zoom meeting, when I felt overwhelmed and unsure how we could best help others in the midst of a pandemic. Writing notes taught me that there is always a way to serve others, and unusual circumstances can cause us to serve others in unexpected and unconventional ways. 

Our school year came to a close, and as summer began, I stopped thinking about the notes. However, a week or two later, I received a card in the mail. It was a thank-you from one of the “strangers” I had written a letter to. The card was short and sweet, and I still keep it on my dresser. Maybe it will help me remember, even in the dark times, how powerful encouraging words can be.

Stephanie Jorritsma has lived in North Dakota for almost four years. She is studying writing and theater at the University of Jamestown and is working as an intern at Inspired Woman this summer. In her spare time, she enjoys being in nature, spending time with friends and family, and expressing herself creatively. Stephanie believes in the power of stories and hopes to bring more beauty into the world through her writing. Click here to read Stephanie’s article about The University of Jamestown’s Character in Leadership Program.