Volunteer Libby reflects on the pleasure of putting pen to paper.
In the age of text and WhatsApp messages, voice notes and emails, writing and receiving a letter has become almost a rarity. There is nothing quite like a hand-written envelope with a stamp arriving on our door mat (albeit popped into a covering envelope and sent on by the New Bridge office) to generate interest. Most of the mail I receive goes straight into the recycling bin so it’s a treat to receive something personal.
When I started as a befriender, I wondered what on earth I’d find to write about. I would never have guessed at some of the topics that have been covered over the last few years.
Understandably I’ve heard about the personal stuff, families, or the lack thereof, childhood experiences (much of it really tough), hopes, fears, and plans for the future as well as the day-to-day struggles of prison life.
As a New Bridge befriender, I stick to very clear guidelines as to what I disclose about myself, my friends and family members. Recognising that this might feel a bit one sided to the recipient, especially when the other person is being open about themselves, means I need to be clear and give an honest explanation as to why I don’t provide any identifiable information about myself. Often just acknowledging the imbalance can go a bit of the way to easing this tricky situation. From the outset I’ve found it helpful to deal with any personal questions head on, with honesty and hopefully sensitivity.
Letters exchanged have explored a range of topics – in one we pondered the meaning of a Robert Burns poem, which led to further correspondence thinking about the Slave Trade and its abolition. We have swapped jokes, life affirming inspirational quotes, cooking and gardening tips as well as advice on how to get the best from the garage when the car is booked in for an MOT or service. I’ve been introduced to music I wouldn’t normally have come across, learnt about the life of a long-distance lorry driver, and explored texts from the bible and the Quran.
There is always something in the news that is worth a comment, and it is even more interesting when we have differing views on topics such as immigration, the Royal Family and leaving the EU. Popular television programmes can be critiqued, although I struggle to find much to say about sports and the soaps – in addition I wouldn’t be British if I didn’t make some mention of the weather and the changing seasons and there’s always something to say about that!
Letters have included pictures, quizzes and self-help guidance (gleaned from reputable websites). Many of the people we write to are experiencing mental health problems and the old saying, “a problem shared is a problem halved” is worth remembering even if it’s perhaps overly optimistic.
Journalling is a well-known technique for those exploring their inner lives and writing to a befriender can be a similar outlet for those struggling with anxiety, depression and other emotional or mental health challenges. Of course New Bridge befrienders don’t take the place of therapists or other professionals, however writing to someone that isn’t a family member, their solicitor, probation officer or other official connected to the prison or court system can be a useful and safe outlet.
I find I need to be more thoughtful when I write than when I speak as tone and inflection can be lost in the written word leaving comments perhaps open to incorrect assumptions. I always try to respond to the points my correspondent has mentioned and then add some of my own news, thoughts, or comments. This does mean that some letters get to be quite long.
I don’t hand-write as this is now quite a slow process (for me) but I do use a handwriting font and often vary the font to emphasise what I’m saying. All letters are topped and tailed by hand and envelopes are hand-written.
Each befriending relationship develops at different speeds. Some relationships don’t work out and when that happens, we can suggest that another befriender is allocated. I’m happy to say that most do become rewarding and interesting relationships.
If Libby has inspired you to consider volunteering, you can find out more and sign up here: https://www.newbridgefoundation.org.uk/volunteer-for-us