Tiffany Lewis and her Pens for Pals volunteers are taking a stand against bullying and suicide by sending handwritten letters of hope and encouragement.
By Amanda Pinney, Photos courtesy of Tiffany Lewis
Tiffany Lewis puts pen to paper every day, tracing the words “I’m here for you” and “You’re so strong” in bright colors. She decorates the letters in glitter, stickers and drawings, sometimes signing her name and other times, leaving them anonymous. Lewis often does not know anything about the person she is writing to, but she knows he or she is in need of the encouragement and positive words that fill the envelope.
Printed at the top of each letter is “Pens for Pals,” the name of the Austin-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization she started with the intention of addressing and reducing the country’s crippling suicide rate. Up and running for just three months, Pens for Pals already has volunteers in almost every state, as well as two or three countries.
Lewis writes 100 letters per week. Although she had previously been writing anonymous letters on her own, she decided to officially go public with her mission at the end of April. According to Lewis, a variety of factors inspired the launch of the organization, but the primary reason involved her personal experiences with those she cared about committing suicide.
“I went to 12 funerals in 10 months and it broke my heart,” Lewis says. “I just had to do something about it. I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Lewis receives names of those who may be comforted by a letter in a variety of ways, either anonymously or through personal messages and emails. The names are often of youth who are at risk of suicide or are victims of bullying, but the service does not exclude adults. Pens for Pals letters reach recipients of all ages, from 7 to 60 years old, and all letters feature words of love and support written by Lewis and her volunteers.
“All these negative things being said to them in school or whatever they’re being bullied about, I’m reversing that,” Lewis says. “And from a stranger to another stranger, when they hear it and I say it repeatedly every single week, that becomes ingrained in their heads.”
Once they receive a letter, recipients can write back if they wish, and Lewis tries to match letter writers with recipients who are in the same age group so they can perhaps more easily engage with one another. She wants Pens for Pals to be a lifelong service allowing at-risk youth to bond with one another and feel as though their voices are heard.
The organization’s newest service is called the Brave Card, Safe Card Program, which allows adults to register as “safe adults” through a rigorous process that includes a background check. Once approved, each safe adult displays an official Safe Adult card at registered locations. Youth in the program younger than 13 receive a Brave Card, which they can hand to a safe adult in a confidential manner if they are in trouble or need help.
Lewis hopes the program will be a way for children to feel they can trust and talk to certain adults in the midst of a potentially dangerous situation. Her goal for the organization is to develop as many communities as possible, including home bases in at least five different states in the next fiscal year. The hope is to create many branches so more children can take refuge at a home base.
“We need a lot of safe communities. These children don’t need to be afraid to speak,” Lewis says. “They need someone that they can comfortably talk to about what’s going on and not be in trouble for it.”
Pens for Pals currently serves 450 to 500 youth and adults, and each week, Lewis receives at least 12 more names in need of a letter. She hopes the growth of the organization will help taboo topics such as bullying, child abuse and suicide become a greater conversation in the Austin community and throughout the world.
Lewis believes in the power of a handwritten letter, a symbol the person on the other end cares. For each child, teen and adult who has received one, a letter was often just what they needed.
“Every single one of them tells me that I saved their life, that I changed their life so much,” Lewis says. “Every single one is so grateful.”
To learn more visit pensforpals.org.
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