For the past five months, Minnesota Orchestra volunteers, staff, musicians and board members have partnered with Kindly, an online volunteering program, and Lyngblomsten Senior Housing, Healthcare & Services, to write letters to Lyngblomsten’s residents in St. Paul, helping them remain physically, mentally and spiritually well during a time of restricted visits to their campus.
In late August, volunteers and residents had the rare opportunity to smile, wave and meet each other in person, from a distance, while listening to a surprise performance from a Minnesota Orchestra brass quintet.
The quintet—comprising Minnesota Orchestra trumpet players Douglas C. Carlsen and Charles Lazarus, Principal Horn Michael Gast, Principal Trombone R. Douglas Wright and Principal Tuba Steven Campbell—played in three outdoor locations on the Lyngblomsten campus in St. Paul. Residents listened from their windows or sat outside on the lawn and in the parking lot. Orchestra staff members and volunteers brought signs to share messages with their pen pals, in their first in-person meetings since the letter-writing program began five months ago.
The surprise musical visit was years in the making. Brandon Litman, founder of the Kindly app, has been involved in community engagement for over a decade. Two years ago, when Minnesota Orchestra Volunteer Services Manager Wanda Kanwischer first learned of Litman’s work from one of the Orchestra’s volunteers, she knew there would be a way to use the program to build relationships across the Orchestra community. Since then, Litman and Kanwischer have worked together to try out various components of the program.
“One of the biggest areas for impact,” Litman says, particularly of the past few months, “has been finding a way for people to make a difference in the community despite the limitations on in-person interactions.” As the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning, Kindly initiated the letter-writing program with the Orchestra’s volunteer community, more than 600 strong—inviting them to write to seniors in our community who may be feeling isolated. Letters are submitted through an online platform and then printed out and distributed in person to the residents.
Hundreds of letters later, Litman shares that “One of the most important parts of the process is recognizing the value of the seniors and understanding that it is not a one-way street.” He found himself emotional after learning about one such experience from an 8th-grade letter-writer: “Her new senior friend said, ‘I’m here if you need me.’ These small acts of kindness really add up.”
Orchestra supporter and volunteer Nancy Bader began participating in the project after her mother, who lived in a senior facility, passed away in June. “I saw how isolated and lonely she felt not being able to be with her family, and I believe she would have been thrilled to have received a letter from an outside person who was thinking about her. Writing these letters allows me to feel like I’m providing that for someone else.”
Bader noted that it is always easy to find someone to write to on the list of residents: “Even when all we know about them are a few items they’ve offered—likes flowers, loves to read, watches baseball, etc.—it’s been a great reminder how common the human experience is to us all. Whether young, middle-aged or an elder, we all have much we can relate to in each other.”
Orchestra musicians have been getting involved, too, using time they would normally be in rehearsal to build new, meaningful relationships. Among them, Acting Associate Principal Bass Kathryn Nettleman meets virtually with other letter-writers and has found it important to get to know the volunteers as she takes time to write to the senior residents.
Of the event at Lyngblomsten last month that brought all of these individuals together, Bader, who was there to experience it in person, expressed: “I’m sure that if my mother would have experienced it, she would have talked about it for weeks.”
Photography by Travis Anderson