Local nonprofit hopes to build resiliency through youth pen-pal program

Christy Aley said The Harrelson Center and New Hanover Resiliency Task Force launched the Orange Mailbox Project to promote connecting diverse friendships and building resiliency among youth participants this summer. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of The Harrelson Center)

WILMINGTON — Though social media may make the art of pen-palling seem like a thing of the past, local nonprofit The Harrelson Center, in partnership with the New Hanover Resiliency Task Force, is hoping to connect youth with diverse new friendships through old-fashioned correspondence. The two organizations launched the Orange Mailbox Project last week, which encourages young people to write letters to strangers, expressing their emotions and in essence learning about and building resiliency.

The project already has mailboxes perched at seven participating locations, including The Harrelson Center, St. Andrews Covenant Presbyterian, St. Andrews AME, Warner Temple AME, Wrightsville Beach Methodist Church, Boys and Girls Brigade, and First Presbyterian Church.

“We look to add mailbox locations throughout the summer,” Christy Aley, community outreach coordinator for The Harrelson Center, wrote in an email. “Any organization wanting to participate this summer can join up to June 15th. Our hope is to increase the number of mailboxes and expand the age groups we engage in the fall.”

For now, middle- and high-school students are asked to participate. They will be given prompts to help their letter-writing, if needed. The prompts ask basic questions about likes, such as favorite foods and subjects in schools, as well as questions that elicit emotion, like what makes them sad or what brings them joy.

Aley said the center is pairing up with leaders hosting youth programs throughout the summer to garner participation in the letter-writing exchanges. It will connect kids with people in other areas across they county they may otherwise have never had a chance to interact with — for instance, “inner city to Wrightsville Beach, or predominantly Black neighborhoods to predominantly white,” Aley wrote.  

Aley noted the plan is to change prompts as the program moves forward through the summer, as well to keep the writing ongoing. “[S]ome of the questions later in the summer will be about building resilience,” she explained. “These questions will help youth remember what brings personal joy, comfort or peace, reminding them that they can reflect on these resources in time of stress.”

Any child who wishes to participate can visit the orange mailbox located in the welcome area at the Harrelson Center (20 North Fourth St.) downtown. Aley said, in addition to help kids healthfully express their feelings and gain confidence in their voices, she would like to connect the kids with their pen pals face-to-face by the end of summer.

“We hope to stimulate curiosity, interest and understanding of people beyond one’s immediate circle and help young people learn the value, even joy, that comes from human connections,” she noted.

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