Taking connection to those who need it most
20 December 2022 at 8:59 am
How do you tackle loneliness? Through bringing connections to people, one social enterprise says.
Social isolation and loneliness impact millions of Australians, even more so since the pandemic.
But a team of volunteers is helping connect up Australians to make a dent in the loneliness epidemic that grips us.
Known as Connected AU, the program has created a network of penpals all across the country, helping to ease loneliness one letter at a time.
It began with just an idea back at the beginning of COVID, founder Mea Campbell told Pro Bono News.
Reflecting on members of her own family, Campbell’s thoughts turned to those who would be alone during COVID lockdowns, people who wouldn’t have family or people to care about them or visit them.
She embarked on a “research dive” into loneliness and isolation, and realised that “loneliness is an epidemic”.
“It costs Australia $2.7 billion annually. It’s a huge socio-economic health issue. And after that deep dive, I felt… I just wanted to do something,” she said.
Connected AU was that something. The first program was the Letterbox Project, a pen pal program.
Campbell said the project is unique thanks to the way it is managed. Connected AU manages and vets all communication; those who sign up for the program are given a short description of their pen pal, and respond with a letter that gets sent to the Connected AU office.
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That letter is vetted by the office and passed on to the pen pal for a response.
After just a few months, Campbell said she began to have an inkling that it was “pretty significant”.
“It didn’t take long for me to realise there’s such a need,” she recalled.
“We’ve had over 40,000 people in the last two years participate, and over 600 schools… aged care facilities [and] corporate groups [too],” Campbell said.
Services like aged care homes, disability providers and homelessness services have referred clients to the Letterbox Project.
She believes the safety process is part of why the Letterbox Project has been so popular.
Another reason is the “tangible, slow form connection” that letter-writing builds.
“It’s stepping away from this tech-mad world that we live in. It’s taking people back to social connections,” Campbell said.
“And the other reason it’s so popular is because I think everyone resonates with loneliness, whether it’s themselves, whether it’s one of their parents, grandparents or neighbours. Everyone has a reason to understand loneliness.”
A plan for sustainable growth
Since 2020, Connected AU has grown into a sustainable organisation with multiple programs.
Although it was initially envisaged as being for people who couldn’t access technology — seniors and people with disability, for example — people from all walks of life flooded to the program, from young children to teenagers, new mothers to people living in geographic isolation.
“That really surprised us because people were reaching out for connection, even though they could get on social media or they could access technology and connect,” Campbell explained.
“That just really showed us that it’s not just those vulnerable people; everyone can feel lonely and is looking for connections.”
The team behind Connected AU decided to create online programs that would ensure the same safety as the letter-writing program, while facilitating the quicker form of tech-based communication.
They formed online clubs, including a social club, book club, cooking club, gardening club and kids club.
“They’re just like traditional clubs… in your local area, but they’re online,” she said.
“People from all over Australia are in these clubs, and they’re so fun and positive and obviously very safe.”
Each month, there is a different theme in each club. The cooking club might focus on desserts, while the cooking club looks at indoor plants. Activities and challenges fill the month and a chat function facilitates conversation.
Another program is an online events schedule. These are hosted on Zoom and are tailored to those who may not be able or may not want to go to an in-person event in the community.
Each online event features something different, like a Q and A with a high profile Australian.
“It’s like a really accessible and non-overwhelming way for people to connect,” Campbell said.
“We’re filling that gap, taking connection to people where they are.”
There are also other programs out in the community, including a schools program and a corporate volunteering program.
The Letterbox Project is sponsored by Tetley, which enables Connected AU to keep it free and reach some of the most vulnerable people in the community. Campbell said the sponsorship allows Connected AU to keep the program running.
Connected AU currently operates as a social enterprise with paid memberships for some of its programs. There are plans to look into B Corp certification down the track, though they “haven’t started down that path yet”.
Campbell explains Connected AU’s model as “purpose for profit”.
“A lot of the stuff we do is free, particularly for all those concession holders. Some of the clubs have memberships for people who don’t fall into [that category]. We’re trying to keep it as accessible as possible,” she said.
She sees Connected AU as fulfilling a need in the community that isn’t going away.
“We’ve worked really hard over the last six months to really make everything strong… and to make sure that we’re sustainable and that these programs stay around. Small changes to make it so that we’re more sustainable whilst making it free for everyone [for whom] it needs to be,” Campbell said.
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“In the next five years we have some really clear goals. We want to be able to reach more vulnerable people, because taking that first step is something that we’ve identified is really hard for people to do. We’ll be trying over the next 12 months to just get the name Connected AU out there, whether it’s in GPs or hospitals or every aged care home, when someone first goes in… if someone is disconnected and lonely, just refer them straight to Connected AU.
“It’s a really incredible program. When people first hear about it, they probably don’t think much of it, but it’s actually making an incredible impact.”