Family Ink: Sunny Montgomery’s Pen Pal program at Lexington nursing home

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The Height 1000 Project:
Bruce Burris interviews Sunny Montgomery
by BRUCE BURRIS

I recently started a small blog and facebook page called height1000 to bring attention to businesses, people and organizations who are doing interesting things via the arts - in support of people considered to have disabilities. Sunny Montgomery mentioned some time ago that she had started a pen pal project at a local nursing home. I asked to interview her about that for height1000. The interview is below.

h1000: Can you describe your own artistic practice?

I consider myself a creative non-fiction writer. I write very short personal essays and I try to find the humor in most things. Writing is my top passion, but it can at times be a rather lonely profession (though tremendously rewarding!) My other passion is community projects which always involve some element of writing (i.e. Family Ink, Dear Diary Project) Those kinds of projects give me a good balance, I get to be creative and I get to collaborate with others. I love new people. New people and new experiences are incredibly necessary to my livelihood.

h1000: Some time ago you mentioned that you had begun a pen pal program with a local nursing home. Can you tell us how you thought of this and how the program works?

I guess the wheels started turning back in 2008 when I was selected to do the nursing home poetry tour by ElandF Gallery. I spent the day visiting various nursing homes in Central Kentucky and sharing my writing, That experience was both incredibly inspirational and sad. A lot of the people I met where very lonely and so happy to just sit and talk. I feel that senior citizens in our country are often times one of the most neglected demographics.

People are so busy these days and its often hard to find the time to really commit to volunteering. Because of that, I felt it’d be easy to find people willing to volunteer as a pen-pal. Being a pen-pal ultimately takes up such little time. Fifteen minutes a couple times a month – that’s all it takes to really brighten a person’s day, maybe even week. Its a real easy way to feel like you’re making a difference.

Right now Family Ink (which is the name of the pen-pal program) is partnered with just one nursing home. I was given a list of 25 residents interested in the program along with short bios. Then I paired them up with people interested in volunteering.

I ask most of the volunteers to write at least one letter a month – even if they aren’t getting responses which happens frequently. Many of the residents can’t write their own letters so they have to rely on staff to do it for them. Sometimes it takes awhile.

h1000: What are a few of the highlights of the program?

Oh, there have been several. One in particular – I have an 8 year old boy who volunteers as a pen-pal. He ended up really making a connection with his resident. They were apparently writing back and forth multiple times a week and have discovered they have a lot in common. Love of water and boats, for instance. When I talk to the creative director at the nursing home she says the same thing – that this kid has become such a bright spot in this man’s life.

h1000: Were there any surprises?

I guess I was surprised how many nursing home residents were not going to be able to write their own letters. It does make it difficult. I know some of the volunteers worry they are bothering their pen-pals when they keep sending letters without getting responses. But I encourage them to just keep on.

h1000: Coming up with a good program idea is one thing- carrying it out is quite another. Why did you carry your pen pal idea out?

The thing is, you gotta do something with your days. I’m just as happy coming home from my day job and working on these kinds of projects as I would be coming home and watching TV all night. That’s not true, I am much happier watching ideas come to fruition. We have the option of spending our time, pretty much, how ever we want. Might as well be productive!

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This article also appears on page 15 in the February 7, 2013 print issue of Ace.



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