FORT SILL, Okla., July 30, 2020 -- In the inspirational words of award-winning writer Maya Angelou, “be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”
A local military spouse has conceived the perfect way to do just that. It’s called the Veteran Pen Pal Project, and it can be found on the website Christina Etchberger calls itsamilitarylife.com.
The purpose of this site is to provide military spouses a place to connect virtually. “It’s a Military Life” is also on Facebook and Instagram, she noted.
Local military spouses are frequent contributors to the site’s main topic, which may be anything from entrepreneurship ideas to health and fitness, recipes and family activities for home and school. One frequent contributor, Liz McChesney, is the one who found and shared the Maya Angelou quote above.
Recently, with military spouses and families in mind, Etchberger launched a “Pay It Forward” initiative to promote service in the military community and change the military spouse mentality from “being helped” to “helpers.”
Etchberger is a mother of two young boys, ages 2½ and 8 months, and the wife of an air defender, Capt. Henry Etchberger, who is deployed with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery. They have lived in Lawton since the summer of 2016.
Christina has a military grandfather in an assisted living center up north that is currently under lockdown, so she is well aware of the plight veterans living in the Lawton-Fort Sill Veterans Center face due to the COVID-19 crisis. Their families are not permitted to visit them in their rooms, and only recently has the center made use of a wood-and-glass partition door to allow veterans to interact with their guests in person.
“That’s why this project is so important to me,” Etchberger said. “ I know this act of kindness will lift up their spirits, and when people get those pen pal letters back it will also do the same for their own happiness.”
Her first contact with the veterans center occurred while she was teaching seventh-grade science at MacArthur Middle School, and she was part of a school trip to the center.
The school’s Military Child Program followed that up with multiple visits to the veterans, and club members did projects with center residents.
Etchberger said she and her family have also volunteered at the veterans center, and they got as involved as they could. She and her husband have found it extremely important to be involved with our veterans, she said.
“My husband really enjoyed it as well, just being able to connect with the veterans as an active Soldier,” Etchberger said.
Inspired by something she saw on social media, Christina called up center recreation director Marilyn Woods one day and found her very receptive to the idea of having a Veteran Pen Pal Project.
Woods said that since the letters will be coming from outside, the staff will have to put on gloves and sanitize them before they’re shared with residents. Center officials are still working out the details of just how the sharing will be handled.
“As they come in, we’re going to get them out. We have plenty of veterans who have been talking about pen pals for a while, so this is something they’re really interested in and we pretty much have a list of who we know wants to participate,” Woods said.
“Me personally, I’m excited about it because with COVID going on, there’s a lot of things veterans can’t do right now. They’ve lost the sense of socialization when it comes to the community,” she continued.
Before the pandemic, center residents were used to having visitors all the time. Now, they only see each other every day.
“So, them being able to connect with the outside, I think that’s something that’s really exciting for them to be connected with others that they don’t know. They love to chat with people and to give advice, and they love to share their knowledge and all that good stuff,” Woods said.
Corresponding with pen pals is a good cognitive activity veterans can do, and they’re looking forward to it just as she is, she added.
Etchberger said some people might feel comfortable RSVPing for the “My Veteran Pen Pal Project” event on the “It’s a Military Life” Facebook page or even posting a photo there. Others can simply do the following:
First, write a letter or make a craft. The website suggests a lot of flat items that can go inside a mailing envelope, such as as photos, cards, crafts, complimentary pens, stickers, postcards, seed packets, Post-It notes, little candies, maps or interesting articles that might help the veteran get to know his or her pen pal a little bit better.
On the back of the envelope you might write, “Looking for a pen pal who likes (fill in the blank).”
“For example, I had my son’s envelope say, ‘looking for a pen pal who likes planes.’ So maybe that would focus in on an Air Force veteran. Other friends, their interests might be different. It could even be, ‘looking for a pen pal who likes to give advice to military spouses.’ So that’s one way to connect with particular veterans of like interests,” Etchberger suggested.
Then mail your letter directly to the Lawton-Fort Sill Veterans Center, 501 SE Flower Mound Road, Lawton, OK 73501.
As for topics and general tone, remember to keep it positive. Thank-you’s are always welcome and so are crafts, as are requests for advice. Veterans love sharing their stories. Let them know you’re there as a friend through the Pen Pal Project.