Georgina Binnie

PhD James Joyce & Photography

Placement: Writing Back: Yorkshire Letters and Archives

Organisation: University of Leeds

Ideal career: Academia

Georgina Binnie is about to start her 4th year as a PhD student in the School of English. She has enjoyed many volunteering roles whilst studying at university but it was her role as a befriender at a residential home in Leeds which sparked an idea for an exciting new volunteer project.

Having seen the isolation felt by many elderly people in care homes, Georgina wanted to help.

Inspired by memories of writing letters to her grandmother, the joy of giving and receiving a hand written letter is at the heart of the project. My idea was to set up a penpal scheme between undergraduate students in the School of English and elderly people in Leeds and the surrounding area. The idea was really well-received in the School of English as students welcomed the idea of writing something other than an essay!

After securing funding from the Leeds for Life Foundation I was able to put my plans into motion. Next I needed to recruit my elderly participants so I attended a lot of coffee mornings and meetings at community groups across Leeds to talk about the project. At the end of this outreach work I was able to match 14 students with participants from organisations including St Michael's Church in Headingley, Otley Elderly Action, Bramley Elderly Action and Leeds Library at Home Service.

The first letter was written by the student and was very much an introduction; talking about their life in Leeds, their studies, family, hobbies and interests. In return the elderly participants gave an insight into their life today and also memories from years gone by. The letters were written and exchanged over a number of months and in April we held a thank you event at the University which was a wonderful chance for penpals to meet face to face.

The letters could be very personal at times, particularly from those caring for their loved ones, and also very creative. As well as exchanging favourite books, parks, places to visit the letter writing became a way of sharing creativity. One participant, who was 99, sent her own poetry to her student and another sent a watercolour painting which was beautiful. The students were also encouraged to include copies of archives from the Liddle Collection (part of the University of Leeds' Special Collections) to link in with the WW1 centenary celebrations. Seeing documents and photographs from the archives helped to spark memories and stories of a personal history of Leeds.

The feedback from all the volunteers has been so positive. Everyone particularly enjoyed receiving the letters in the post. To see a handwritten envelope in amongst all the bills and junk mail is thrilling. I took part in the project myself and some of the excitement of receiving the letter is because you appreciate the time and effort that it takes to write. Also, all the volunteers enjoyed the age difference in the match. Both participants were mostly surrounded by people of their own age, be that old or young, and having a connection with someone so much older or younger was felt to be very valuable. The students also learnt a great deal about Leeds and the surrounding area, giving them a greater understanding and connection to the city and its history.

What did I learn from the project? Don't presume that all older people love to write handwritten letters, some are too busy emailing on their iPads! Not all elderly people are afraid of technology which is brilliant. On a personal level the project has sparked a real interest in community history and archives which I'm looking to develop further. I also really enjoyed participating in the project myself. The lady I wrote to was so stoic and positive no matter what difficulties she was experiencing in her life. In our letters we shared favourite poems and I was really touched to receive a box of handkerchiefs when I met her at the event. Her positivity has been a real inspiration to me.

Georgina's letter writing project, 'Writing Back: Yorkshire Letters and Archives', was the winner of the Leeds for Life Foundation Award at the Leeds for Life Citizenship Awards 2015. The project will run again this coming academic year and Georgina is already planning to expand and develop the project in new ways. If you know of any older Yorkshire residents who might enjoy writing a letter to one of our students please get in touch with Georgina at G.E.Binnie@leeds.ac.uk. Georgina is always looking to expand the project's affiliation with any relevant organisations. Students are recruited internally from the School of English cohort.