Pandemic Pen Pals
Poets & Writers Magazine|March - April 2021
Nupur Chaudhury, a public health strategist living in New York City, grew up in the nineties sending letters through the mail. She received weekly aerograms from relatives in India; she corresponded with a pen pal in Texas; her father even took her to admire the post office’s new stamps every month. But as she grew older, Chaudhury says, “E-mail became more popular, and I really put that writing part of me to the side”—that is, until she came across the pen pal exchange Penpalooza on Twitter in August 2020.
By Emma Hine

At the time, Penpalooza was less than two months old and swiftly growing, thanks to the inventiveness and charm of its founder, New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, and to an evident need for social outlets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Syme, who lives in New York City, began mailing letters to friends and family in April 2020, when, she told Pop-Up Magazine, she rarely left her apartment and “couldn’t write for more than a few minutes at a time.” Writing letters, she said, helped jump-start her work. In late June, Syme asked her Twitter followers—they currently number more than 111,000—if anyone would be interested in finding a pen pal. In a matter of days she received more than five hundred replies, and on June 30, she launched Penpalooza on Elfster, an online platform designed to facilitate Secret Santa gift exchanges. By July 9 more than 1,500 people had signed up. By the time 2020 came to a close, nine thousand pen pals had found correspondents from more than fifty countries. Penpalooza is the largest exchange ever hosted on Elfster, so large that the platform’s engineers altered their code specifically to accommodate this demand.

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