Holy Apostles soup kitchen guest Peter, at The Writing Den’s December 2018 event, sent holiday cards to family members. Photo: Jill Higson
The unexpected arrival of a heartfelt, handwritten note from a distant friend or relative carries with it the power to rekindle a lost relationship, or reaffirm a bond. For that priceless gift, the cost of a pen, a piece of paper, a stamp and an envelope seems very small, indeed — yet for some, the absence of those materials might prevent them from reaching out.
Two years ago, Jill Higson and her boyfriend, Christian Michaels, then living in San Diego, recognized this dilemma among their local homeless population, and created The Writing Den in response. A den in name only (it’s actually a table and some chairs), the project came about when the couple attended an August 2017 neighborhood meeting about volunteer opportunities to help the homeless, which led to a partnership with the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego. The following month, The Writing Den made its debut, as part of the church’s weekly feeding of over 250 guests.
“The power of handwriting — that’s really what it’s about,” Higson said, noting that for those who have trouble accessing computers or cell phones, a handwritten note allows people in need to “connect, feel acknowledgement and love. Handwriting transforms thoughts into action, and enhances self-understanding, accountability and memory.”
And it’s not just about communicating with friends and family. A handwritten note also adds the personal touch, in efforts to secure a better future.
“Maybe there’s a job, or housing, they’ve applied for,” Higson noted. “We give them the means, and sometimes, we help them find [family, friends, work] addresses. They stop by to write, but they also might just want to hang out, chat, and share their stories with us.”
Just as The Writing Den’s appearance at a church or social services organization often comes as an unexpected surprise to those in attendance, so too did the raw materials responsible for inspiring this project.
“When Christian’s mother passed away,” Higson recalled, “she left a trove of papers, postcards, and stamps ... She was an avid writer. We also have a love for handwriting, which is a lost art these days. So we come to these places, and provide people with a postcard, or a birthday, holiday or special occasion card, to send to loved ones.”
In September 2018, Higson “moved back to my place in Chelsea of 11 years. So now we’re a bicoastal nonprofit.” Michaels oversees the San Diego activities, and the couple collaborates on expanding The Writing Den’s reach to other places (Seattle was recently added), and to more locations in existing cities.
Currently, local venues include a monthly presence at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen (296 Ninth Ave.) and the New York City Rescue Mission (90 Lafayette St.), in partnership with New York City Relief. Just announced are monthlies at the NYPL’s Muhlenberg Library (209 West 23rd St.), beginning February 19. A January 26 event at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (126 Crosby St.), Higson noted, “will be our first public, versus specifically homeless service organization, event.”
During their December event at the New York City Rescue Mission, Higson recalled, a man named Jeremy “wrote 10 letters to family and friends,” whom he didn’t have strong relationships with. At this month’s event, “He came up to me and said, ‘My sister and my cousin got my letters, and they were so touched.’ It’s the handwriting. They open their mailboxes, and they’re touching and feeling. It’s not like looking at your email or texts.” Another attendee at that same December den, named Chris, “was going to an interview. We talked about it, and I said, ‘Let me know if you got the job.’ He texted me, and said, ‘I got the job. Thank you so much.’ ”
Speaking to the satisfaction of helping families reconnect or reconcile, Higson noted how “one young guy chose an Andy Warhol postcard, and said he hadn’t spoken to his mom in nine years. He said, ‘I’m just ready to connect with her.’ Then another young gentleman, he had an awful divorce, and wanted to write a letter to his ex-wife.”
Recipients have also shared success stories. “Christian and I have both gotten calls and emails,” Higson said, including feedback from “a young girl in Texas, who didn’t even know where her father was, until his letter arrived.”
Although the project is fueled by the power of words, that still-hearty stock of goodies from Michaels’ mother, which made all things possible, will eventually become depleted. So Higson has begun successful outreach to a number of companies, to ensure a steady stream of supplies. BIC is donating pens, pencils, and markers — and the 650 Sixth Ave. location of Blick Art Materials will be a source of pads and pencils.
As for what you can do to get involved, Higson said, “What we really need to further our mission is for people to donate, to help with the operating costs. And we do need volunteers. It only takes two people, per ‘den,’ and we, or our partners, provide the training.”
The Writing Den is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and all donations are tax-deductible. For more information on NYC, Seattle, and San Diego events, visit writingden.org. You can also find them on Facebook and Instagram.