Bringing joy through the power of the pen

Pen-pal project brings joy to Patrick and her elderly correspondents

Claire Patrick hasn’t told Larry about the hobbling half-hour treks from Helms Hall to the Neu Building yet. Or the frustration of holding a lunch tray while on crutches, one arm in a sling. Or how she felt so overwhelmed as a freshman that she wanted to leave school.

Larry, after all, is a disabled veteran of the Korean War. “I don’t really want to complain about crutches,” Patrick says.

Instead, she lets him know about her current state of mind (optimistic and grateful), her golf game (improving) and her Christmas break (relaxing). She sends him photos of the gingerbread house she made with her sisters and tells him funny stories about playing football in middle school.

Basically, she gives him a much-needed glimpse into a world outside the four walls of his room.

Patrick, now a junior and a member of Wingate’s women’s golf team, has been corresponding with Larry, an 88-year-old resident of the Brookdale Monroe Square assisted-living center, since last fall. It started as a part of Bulldog Pen Pals, an initiative of Wingate University Athletics that encourages student-athletes to write to senior citizens, especially now that they’re shut in because of Covid-19.

Patrick approached the exercise seriously. Presented with a list of residents she could write to, she picked only two: Larry and Gerry. She didn’t want to dash off a quick note to several people. She was looking for something more substantial, and personal.

“I wrote the letters from the standpoint of I wish it was me talking to my grandpa,” Patrick says.

Patrick’s grandfather, a veteran of the Korean War, has been in and out of the hospital recently, so Patrick hasn’t gotten to see him much, not even over Christmas. Larry has been a capable stand-in. Like many veterans, Patrick’s grandfather, an Air Force veteran, doesn’t talk much about his wartime experiences. But Larry doesn’t mind discussing his time in Korea.

In fact, Patrick chose Larry primarily because he was a veteran.

“It was neat to get insight on something that I didn’t know much about,” she says. “It was a pretty cool connection.”

Connection was the point of Bulldog Pen Pals – creating a bridge between generations and making connections during a time when people of all ages are feeling isolated.

Residents of assisted-living centers are especially prone to loneliness and feelings of disorientation these days. Because Covid-19 preys upon the elderly, people living in such facilities are confined to their rooms for hours.

Patrick, her teammate Sofia Ring and men’s basketball player Vontrez Roberts visited Larry and others at Brookdale just before Thanksgiving. They chatted with residents about their lives and learned some life lessons from Amy Mills, resident program coordinator at Brookdale Monroe Square.

“The good things that you do for others are things you never regret,” Mills told the Bulldog trio, “and you’ll find that those are the things that pay the highest interest.”

Two and a half years ago, Patrick was on the other side of the fence: depending on the kindness of others as she tried to simply survive her freshman year of college.

Relearning her game

As we all know, the college experience has been mercilessly bent out of shape by Covid-19. The liberation of the average residential student, finally free of the house rules laid down by their parents, has been squeezed within an inch of its life by the pandemic. Although Wingate students can move about campus, gatherings are severely limited, there are restrictions on use of the food hall and other eating establishments, and students are not allowed to have visitors in their rooms. In-person classes did not begin until Feb. 1, and even then a large chunk of classes remain online-only. At least through the first three weeks of February, a 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew was in effect, paralleling a mandate from N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper.

The restrictions are just another dose of weirdness in the frustrating college career of Claire Patrick. Growing up in Creedmoor, N.C., a three-stoplight town 30 minutes north of Raleigh, Patrick dreamed of playing basketball in college. She was a capable combo guard who helped her team advance a few rounds in the state playoffs. But her true calling was to play a sport she had always rolled her eyes at.

Early in her high-school career, Patrick’s father “forced” her to play golf with him. “I thought it was the dumbest sport ever,” she says. “I went from this super-competitive, rough sport to one where you wear a skirt and clap when someone hits a good shot.

“But I turned out to be good at it. Then I won a scholarship, and now I love it.”

A long-hitting swashbuckler on the course who never met a shot she wasn’t confident she could make, Patrick got good quickly. Her first year of high-school golf, she made it to the state tournament. Being competitive stoked her interest, and pretty soon she began to understand the appeal of this deliberate, cerebral game. She continued to play high-school hoops, but she started to get the sense that her future lay on the course, rather than the court.

Along the way, Patrick caught the eye of Wingate head coach Erin Thorne and was offered a scholarship to play for the Bulldogs, a team with national-tournament aspirations. So far, so good.

Then, in August of 2018, two weeks before she was due to leave Creedmoor for her freshman year at Wingate, disaster struck. In Patrick’s typical go-for-it style, she “thought it would be a smart idea to get on a dirt bike.” The result could have been worse, but not much. She crashed, mangling her knee (she tore her MCL, ACL and LCL) and breaking her wrist.

“I came in freshman year on crutches and in a sling,” Patrick says. “I couldn’t even putt until February.”

Patrick’s freshman year of golf was gone just like that. She spent the next summer relearning the game, this time from a position of love and with a healthy dose of wisdom. “It made me appreciate the game more and not take anything for granted,” she says.

Working off suggestions from Thorne on how to improve her swing, Patrick spent hours mock-swinging before ever hitting a ball. Once she finally decided to tee it up, she had to convince herself that her knee could handle her body’s weight as she rotated through the ball.

Patrick worked and worked but still hadn’t mastered her remodeled swing by the time the season started in the fall. She struggled to find a place on the nation’s 10th-ranked team.

“We’d practice and go through qualifying and everything, and I still wasn’t where I should be,” she says. “We played one tournament, and I had one hole bite me pretty good, and then Covid hit, and that was that.”

Overcoming adversity

As much as the dirt-bike accident crippled Patrick’s college golf career, it did an even worse number on her mental state. She was overwhelmed by the daily tasks she would have normally accomplished without a second thought. The bulky brace and crutches made driving a car impractical, but for several classes she also had quite possibly the longest commute on campus: third floor of Helms to the Neu Building. None of her teammates, practically the only people she knew on campus, even had a license. “My teammates were foreign, so they couldn’t drive,” she says.

So Patrick would inch her way up Wilson Street, swinging along the sidewalk as the crutches rubbed her armpits sore.

“I had to leave 30 minutes early, and I would get there drenched in sweat,” she says.

Patrick relied on strangers to help her navigate the entryways to buildings. She struggled to serve herself in the cafeteria. “I was so overwhelmed,” she says. “I had so much going on. I didn’t want to be here. I hated having to crutch to class all the time. So my grades really suffered.”

Wingate’s faculty and Patrick’s coach saved her. Thorne gave her a “snap out of it!” talking to, and faculty members provided encouragement in other ways. “The professors helped me a lot,” Patrick says. “My freshman year, I had professors that would be like, ‘Hey! How are you? How’s your knee doing?’ They didn’t even know much about me. I had them two days a week. They still cared.” Their attention has helped Patrick reverse course in the classroom. She is doing well academically, including making the dean’s and president’s lists a few times.

She has returned the favor with Larry and Gerry. The Bulldog Pen Pals project was perfect for Patrick, a communications major who especially enjoys writing and connecting with people. She makes a point to write in longhand to her pen pals, because it forces her to be thoughtful and intentional. While writing, she asks herself, “If I was in his shoes, what would I want somebody to put in my letter?”

Patrick and her fellow Bulldogs’ meeting with their pen pals at Brookdale was especially poignant. The elderly are many times more likely than young people to develop severe symptoms after contracting Covid-19. To lessen the likelihood of a potentially disastrous outbreak, Brookdale’s residents, like those in assisted-living centers around the world, stay in their rooms most of the time now, their normal routine disrupted.

“Honestly, what broke my heart the most when I was talking to Larry was he told me he used to really look forward to lunchtime and dinner, because he would get to go talk to his friends,” Patrick says. “But now they just sit in their room, and they eat by themselves.”

Patrick and her mother deliver gifts to children in the pediatric ward of Duke University Hospital every Christmas, and Patrick volunteered her freshman year at the potato drop during One Day, One Dog, and has joined the golf team for other local charity projects. The good feeling she gets while volunteering motivated her to jump at the chance to be a pen pal.

But as much as she enjoys the warm fuzzies that accompany a good deed, the project has provided her with something in return: a new friend.

A new perspective

Patrick says she feels like she has gotten to know Larry and gets excited when she sees an email from PawPrint saying she has a letter to pick up. She looks forward to finding out even more about him and is already planning a return trip to Brookdale.

“I feel sometimes that between our age groups there’s such a huge gap that seems to be too large,” says Mills, the Brookdale program coordinator. “We can bridge that gap and come together and find that we do have a lot of things in common.”

Larry played sports in high school and went on to become a high-school teacher and coach. He and Patrick have bonded over their athletic endeavors – Larry’s living on in his memories, Patrick’s still a work in progress.

And she’s definitely making progress. “Claire came on as a developmental player and is now on the cusp skillswise of breaking through and consistently shooting in the 70s,” Thorne says. “She’s overcome a lot of adversity, and her progress with her golf skills has been awesome to watch and be a part of.”

It helps that Patrick is able to put things in perspective. Her outlook on life has been shaped by her life’s misfortune. And not for the worse.

“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason,” she says. “If that [the crash] wouldn’t have happened, I wouldn’t appreciate it now. Because now I look at it like, ‘I don’t have to go to practice. I don’t have to go to lifts in the morning. I get to.’ I went through freshman year where I didn’t get to. Now I get to, and I’m so happy. I’m not going to complain about waking up at 8 to go work out or go to practice. At least I’m not crutching around from Helms to the Neu building. Look at how far I’ve come.”

Now that’s a story Larry needs to hear.


  • ODOD 2021