Published: 12:11, May 22, 2024
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Pen pal project bridges hearts and minds
By Meng Wenjie and Liu Kun
The envelopes used for letters exchanged between rural children and their volunteer pen pals in the Blue Letter project. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

On Nov 22, 2023, just before turning 18, Lin Zhehao received a special gift — a heartfelt letter from his young pen pal, a boy from a middle school in Daye, located in Central China's Hubei province.

The boy was one of the 526 middle school students in Daye participating in a charity initiative focused on providing psychological support to rural children.

The project was launched by the China Charity Federation in collaboration with Blue Letter, a Chinese non-governmental organization.

In this project, I want to help my pen pal develop a positive mindset so he can face life’s challenges with optimism and strength.

Lin Zhehao, a student at the Wuhan Institute of Technology

Lin, currently studying at the Wuhan Institute of Technology, learned about this program through his school's volunteer association and soon became one of the "letter ambassadors". He exchanges handwritten letters with his pen pal at least once a month.

The project primarily targets rural middle school students aged 13-14, with the goal of establishing one-on-one correspondence with volunteers to encourage self-expression and self-awareness among these teenagers.

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To date, Blue Letter has offered letter companionship services to rural children from 1,217 schools across the country, including nine schools in Daye, exchanging a total of 1.42 million letters.

"In this project, I want to help my pen pal develop a positive mindset so he can face life's challenges with optimism and strength," said the 18-year-old.

Volunteers who pass the initial assessment receive professional training provided by the organization, equipping them with the skills needed to offer psychological and social support to rural children in a more professional manner.

For example, Lin learned that when addressing the challenges described in the teenagers' letters, he is expected to be an attentive listener rather than imposing his own judgments or values.

Lin Lusheng, the project director at the China Charity Federation, emphasized that teenagers in the project are at an age where they begin to encounter academic pressure and undergo typical physiological and psychological changes during adolescence.

"During this phase, many children hesitate to share their feelings with adults such as parents or teachers, which, if ignored, can lead to psychological issues," he said.

He mentioned that around one percent of the children involved in the project face specific psychological challenges like self-harm or aggressive tendencies. In such cases, volunteers seek professional support from the organization and offer mental health guidance through letters.

In more severe situations where children openly discuss incidents of self-harm or express detailed intentions to harm others, the organization intervenes promptly by contacting the school for immediate assistance.

"These extreme cases are rare, accounting for only about 0.1 percent," said Lin Lusheng.

According to him, 80 to 90 percent of the project's volunteers are university students in their 20s, with the rest coming from prominent companies as employees.

For example, Ji Xiaoming, who works for one of China's major food delivery platforms, Eleme, is a volunteer with Blue Letter and has a 14-year-old pen pal named Cao Yajuan from Daye.

Ji remembered that in Cao's first letter, she mentioned feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork, asked about effective study methods, and was curious about university life.

Ji drew from her own educational experiences and sought advice from friends to sincerely respond to the letter, sharing details about her enriching and independent university life.

Upon receiving Ji's reply, Cao was overjoyed. "She described university life as so colorful and inspiring. It really motivates me to study hard and strive for my dream university," she said.

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This initiative isn't solely about young volunteers providing support to rural children; the warmth and growth are mutual.

"When I was young, I used to wish for a wise elder to offer guidance during times of confusion," Ji recalled.

Now, by providing guidance to others, she finds that this experience is bringing healing to her own journey.

This project has also inspired Ji in her approach to child education. As a mother of an infant under one year old, Ji aims to nurture a strong bond with her child, encouraging open communication and emotional expression.

Lin Zhehao also feels like he is reconnecting with his adolescent self by addressing the questions he had during that time in his life. He discovered that the organization tends to match volunteers with teenagers who share similar life and educational experiences.

Reflecting on his past with the wisdom of adulthood, Lin Zhehao believes he is slowly coming to terms with his former confusion and troubles.

"This activity feels like redemption for my younger self," he said. "Growth isn't a sudden occurrence; it's a gradual process."

Contact the writers at mengwenjie@i21st.cn