Every Letter Read: Reflections from Our Volunteer Community

Since we opened our doors in September 2016, our volunteers have played an integral role in our grantmaking and have served as core members of our community. Their efforts as Operations Volunteers, Letter Readers, Application Specialists, and Researchers ensure that every letter the Foundation receives is read and responded to, and that every eligible constituent has the support needed to advance in the application process. As we prepare to sunset at the end of 2020, we invited representatives from each volunteer role to reflect on what brought them to volunteer with Letters Foundation, why volunteering is important to them, and what takeaways they will carry forward: 

To us, volunteering is taking part in our community and making a meaningful impact by helping others, however small it may seem. We joined as volunteers at the Letters Foundation at different times in our lives. A classroom teacher transitioning to working part time for the school system, eager to give back to others. A longtime nonprofit development professional, one step removed from supporting individuals and families directly, looking for the opportunity to hear peoples’ stories firsthand. A retired teacher experiencing the uneasiness and angst of mid-August, for whom volunteering has always been important. A professional in philanthropy now with the time and privilege to explore professional development opportunities. A publisher of online Black heritage and affordable housing platforms with a desire to be active in community development and humanitarian philanthropy. A mom deciding to stay home as a full time parent, wanting to make an impact in someone’s life through volunteering and inspire her children to do the same. Some of us have been in similarly tough positions as those who apply to the Foundation, seeking assistance as a last resort, and we all wish to pay it forward.

Every letter tells a story—its own story—and many weigh heavily on our minds. We recall countless letters that involved women and children experiencing domestic violence, such as one from a woman who had left her house with her children and was on the run, with no money, nowhere to stay, and no support from family or friends. Others that touched our hearts were from people who had suffered cataclysmic illnesses and were in need of funds to cover exorbitantly expensive insurance costs—something many of us have personally experienced—or medical equipment like handicapped vans. One letter was from a family of seven in a two-bedroom house, where multiple children had severe disabilities, and the parents were struggling with food insecurity, unaffordable housing costs, and transportation. It is hard enough to have a child who needs medical assistance, so to not be able to access basic needs on top of that is heartbreaking. 

We are struck to have read so many letters from veterans, who have given so much for us and now can’t afford dentures or a piece of adaptive equipment vital to their everyday existence. We ache for the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older siblings who wrote to the Foundation after gaining custody of children who’ve lost their parents unexpectedly due to an accident or horrific experience, and are all now dealing with tremendous upheaval while simultaneously grieving. It is troubling to have received so many letters from older people who have worked all their lives (often at minimum wage) and now can’t afford the necessities of daily life. Knowing how hard it would be to share a piece of our lives like this, we are inspired by the trust that constituents put in the Foundation’s process, especially because not everyone will receive financial help. 

Importantly, in spite of their hardships, our constituents demonstrate such strength. One constituent had experienced decades of chronic health conditions, with deteriorating health that has impacted her mental health, as well as her opportunities for work, social interaction, and fulfillment. Nevertheless, she still showed so much resilience, drive and gratitude, and she has inspired us to be more deliberate about being thankful and motivated. Others humble us with their generosity. We have had letters from individuals where their needs were met before the Foundation was able to respond. They’ve often refused any additional help and asked that we help someone else instead. 

In the course of our lives, we continue to gain a deeper understanding of the tremendous inequality and suffering in our country, as well as the lack of support for individuals, families, and entire communities. Our comprehension of the obstacles people face in their pursuit of stability, health, and security has only grown through volunteering at the Foundation. Each time we leave the office after a volunteer shift, read a letter, or provide resources for those who did not meet the criteria for a grant, we remember to never take anything for granted—life can change in a breath. Seeing how quickly one’s life can be altered because of an unfortunate event has left an indelible impression on us. We have also learned that, sometimes, it is not just about money. People need resources that are accessible, and more importantly, people need to be treated with dignity.

These lessons resonate even more amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Day by day, we see how the most marginalized among us are once again hit the hardest, working jobs we take for granted. And then there are the parents who have lost their jobs, lack childcare, and worry about food on the table, next month’s rent, or mortgage payments. So many people are in survival mode, but surviving isn’t enough. This difficult time has prompted some of us to share our resources directly with those who help ease our lives who are most impacted, and to let them know how much we appreciate what they do.

We are saddened that the Foundation is sunsetting this year, and that the ending has coincided closely with the start of COVID-19; we worry now about the growing number of individuals who won’t know where to turn. Nevertheless, contributing to the mission over the years has been invaluable. Doris’ philosophy of “Every Letter Read” shows respect and value for every life, and we are grateful to be a part of that. Every day, each of us put ourselves in the constituents’ shoes and treated each request judiciously; after all, we’re all connected—staff, volunteers, and our letter writers. It is enlightening to have been a part of this network of individuals from diverse backgrounds and perspectives who value empathy.

The field of philanthropy often talks about wanting to be participatory and engage constituents, and despite its limitations, Letters Foundation provides a clear example of how to be collaborative and participatory. Collective effort can, and does, work. 

This blog post was co-authored by volunteers Doug Aylaian, Jo Ann Brown, Marcia Burns-Mittler, Dottie Dunford, Alana Hill, William Murrell, Gloria Namugaya, Jessica Rondon, and Sheryl Seller
Our annual Volunteer Appreciation Event in October 2019