Writing Back, a fulfilling volunteering experience

The more good we do for others, the better we feel. Volunteering provides a sense of accomplishment and is likely to increase our self-confidence. At the same time, it can help us acquire new skills, gain experience and even discover something about ourselves. And giving it a try in another country (we are from Argentina and Malaysia, two places located around 10,000 miles from each other and from Leeds itself) sounded all too exciting!

These are some of the reasons we both found to apply to participate in Writing Back, an award-winning letter writing project which pairs students with older residents across the Yorkshire region in order to help tackle loneliness and social isolation. It may not surprise you that loneliness is an issue for many elderly people, especially those with limited mobility. But it also affects newer generations and, indeed, many young people who attend university do experience homesickness or a desire to better connect with others. With this topic in mind, Writing Back —established by Dr Georgina Binnie in 2014— aims to shed light on this issue and encourage cross-generational friendships by bringing together individuals from these two different demographics. Since 2019 Writing Back has been delivered by the University’s Global Community Team. Let us tell you how it went for us:

Ken & Francisco

There was a time before emails and WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram messaging in which people wrote letters to each other. Although it took a lot longer to reach the other person and some readers might have struggled with appalling calligraphy, there was some true magic to it. And penpalling —something I had never done before— is an attempt to keep alive this tradition of deep and meaningful communication.

Through my letter exchanges with Ken, who has lived in or around Middlesbrough for the past 50 years, I learned about his volunteer work at the local library and his passion for sports, in particular football and cricket. I learned about a time in England in which trams had not yet been replaced by buses. I learned about his fortnightly walks with his wife to the nearby national parks. I learned that they both have five grandchildren and, most importantly, that, together, they live a very happy life.

And I also learned about myself. The experience of telling Ken about my life in Argentina and about my decision to come study at the University of Leeds proved immensely fulfilling and rewarding. It helped me rationalise who I am, how fortunate I have been, and why I am here right now. It’s been an absolute joy.

Lydia & Ngoi

It was a chilly autumn when I first received Lydia’s letter. Holding the small envelope collected from the School of English, I kept wondering about the messages within. My name is written above the printed address. On the upper right corner is a blue stamp, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Wearing a crown, she is facing the left of the envelope. Her demeanour of gazing to her front is calm and elegant, as though she is gazing through the ocean of time.

If the ocean of time was what lay between Lydia and me, then the letters we wrote were boats carrying our best wishes to each other. Very much like me, Lydia is a person who loves nature. Having a keen eye for animals, the avian friends are never some anonymous ‘birds’ in her observation. From her letters, I learned a new list of bird names, for instance, goldfinches, greenfinches, coal tits, hedge sparrows, and so on. She is also observant about the unfortunate incidents in nature, for instance, a bird hunted by the sparrow hawk and a badger which died on the road. Her affinity with nature is further manifested when she admits her delay in growing her spring flowering bulbs and tulips. This instance echoes the passion that my mother and I have for gardening. The cultivation of plants is, for us, the cultivation of joy. I believe this is how Lydia feels too, especially when plants and animals merge into harmonious pictures of her life. I could feel her happiness when encountering the migratory redwings in the garden. There must also be a smile on her face when she sees her neighbours’ cats hiding in the undergrowth.

For Lydia, nature is not just ‘the other’ on the periphery of her life. The inspiration from nature, which she integrates so well into her writing, shapes the way she views the world. It is plausible to posit that she, who perceives nature as part of her life, also cares about other humans in her life. The everyday stories she shared paints her as someone who cares a lot about her family. Instead of just narrating stories about herself, she often shares her time with her family. She spends a lot of effort taking care of her mother-in-law and her husband due to certain reasons. Although the caring responsibilities are challenging, her life is still sprinkled with joy from her grandson. She loves sharing the moments spent with her grandson who loves Spiderman. I imagine it to be a loving scene when she describes how her shy grandson would at least thank the Santa for the gift received.

I was surprised to learn that Lydia had a commitment to the University of Leeds in a certain phase of her life in the past. Apart from showing how we are interconnected, the correspondence prompts me to examine the concept of time. Both Lydia and I are nature lovers associated with the University of Leeds, but it took us so many years to get to know each other through Writing Back. I could sense familiarity with the scenes depicted in her letters, as though her stories are, in one way or another, related to my unconscious.  I was only aware of the resemblance between her stories and certain pieces of my memories after reading her letters. Perhaps the significance of every choice made will only be revealed to us after some time.

The same conception can be translated into the act of writing letters and waiting for replies too. Because we know that we will have to wait for some time before receiving any replies, we will read the letters carefully and think properly of what we should write. However, how our pen pals interpret the sentences might vary from how we intended them to be. Again, this instance exemplifies how time will only illuminate the significance of the choices made after a period of time.


Indeed, the experiences of both Francisco and Ngoi as delineated are our reflections on Writing Back, which had unfortunately been suspended due to the lockdown. Nevertheless, we believe that we and our pen pals will develop some new understanding when we reread the letters a long time after this. To a certain extent, this process resonates with a kind of discovery, both internally and externally, as determined and constituted by time. The portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the stamps is as composed as ever, which harks back to her reassuring Coronavirus broadcast.

Sadly, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the traditional Writing Back Meet Up Event, where we would have met our pen pals, did not take place. But we are glad to know our English pen pals whom we have met through letters. We sincerely hope that they can stay healthy and live their lives to the fullest.


Hui Chien Ngoi
I am Ngoi Hui Chien, a Malaysian currently pursuing the MA English Literature at the University of Leeds. I was a pure science student from upper secondary at SMJK Shing...
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Francisco Fernandez Funes
Hello! My name is Francisco and I’m from Argentina, the land of Messi, tango and the finest steak. I’ve come all the way from Buenos Aires, where I obtained my...
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