The student organization Northfield Notes connects St. Olaf students with adults in the Northfield community through a “matching” pen pal program. The founder of the club, Hannah Omodt ’24, was inspired to start Northfield Notes after reconnecting with her great-aunt by exchanging letters during COVID-19. “She was stuck in a nursing home after breaking her hip, and because of COVID she couldn’t have any visitors. She expressed how isolating it was, and writing me a letter was a way of reaching out and creating a connection to break that loneliness. You don’t always think about what older adults or relatives are doing when they’re by themselves, and I realized that there were probably a lot of other people who were experiencing the same loneliness and isolation that my great-aunt was,” Omodt said.
In fall of 2021, Omodt created Northfield Notes as an official student organization. “It started as something that just my friend group and I did, but after we tabled at the co-curricular fair, more than 100 people signed up. I couldn’t believe it,” Omodt said.
The club currently has over 30 student-adult pairings that trade letters every few weeks. Before being assigned a penpal, students and adults take a survey to “match” with one another based on hobbies, interests, or career aspirations. For club member Martha Slaven ’24, this aspect is one of her favorite parts of the program.
“My pen pal’s name is Sylvia, and she’s super cool,” Slaven said. “She worked in the theater world as a costume designer and later as a teacher, and it’s really fun to talk to someone who has spent their career doing something that I’m also interested in. She knows the ropes, and it’s fun to write to someone who has that wisdom of living a full life and having that perspective that comes with age.”
Omodt has also created connections with her penpal, Gene. “Gene and I have been corresponding for over a year, and it’s just so fun to hear all about his life. He roller skates around the lakes in the Twin Cities, he paints, and is always hyping up his wife in his letters,” Omodt said. “In one of the last letters he wrote to me, he expressed just how lucky he felt to be able to talk to someone about his life. Writing a letter is such a small thing, but it makes such a difference in both of our lives. I feel so lucky to have him to write to, too.”
Deb Falenschek, former activities director at the Northfield Retirement Community, saw first hand what an impact the letter writing had on resident’s lives.
“The residents involved always looked forward to hearing from the students that they were partnered with,” Falenschek said. “Especially during COVID it was a worthwhile program to help them feel connected and valued. The residents can get lonely and bored and programs like this can sure brighten their lives. It is so encouraging to see young people that care about our seniors!”
As Omodt summarized the value of the program, “You don’t realize how much of an impact something as simple as writing a letter can be. It’s a small act of kindness, but it really goes a long way to creating connections and building community, which I think is something that benefits everyone.”
Students who are interested in joining Northfield Notes can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Martha Slaven is the Variety Editor for the Olaf Messenger.