writing to connect to kupuna

Courtney Takabayashi
January 12, 2023

In today’s digital age when it’s easy to send a text, email, or a message through social media, writing letters seems like a relic of the past. However, Michelle Tanaka is bringing it back and using it to connect with kupuna. In observance of National Letter Writing Week, we talked with Tanaka and volunteer Lisa Baxa. 

Inspired by the pandemic
In March 2020, when most people were trying to find toilet paper or face masks, Tanaka started Letters2OurKupuna. Through Instagram, she encouraged friends, family, and the community to write letters, draw pictures, or express themselves in a creative way to brighten the day of a kupuna. Then, participants mailed their creations to Tanaka or made arrangements for a drop off or pick up. Once she received the letters, she distributed them in person to senior facilities and residents throughout the island.

As an administrator of home care at a local agency, Tanaka saw firsthand how isolated many seniors became during the pandemic. “It broke my heart to know many of them are socially isolated,” Tanaka says. “Many of them had been looking forward to family visiting or being socially active with friends. But because of the pandemic, they sit alone waiting for the pandemic to be over.” Through Letters2OurKupuna, Tanaka’s hope was to remind kupuna that they aren’t forgotten.

A family bonding experience
With the help of her two daughters, Tanaka has coordinated the distribution of thousands of letters from all over the islands and even the Mainland. “Participants come from many places,” Tanaka says, “including a halau in Sacramento; local elementary, intermediate, and high schools; the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Hilo; women from the Miss Hawaii organization; HMSA; Pepsi Hawaii; and more.”

Creative cards made during the holiday season. Photo credit: Letters2OurKupuna

The family dedicates four to five hours a week coordinating Letters2OurKupuna. “With work, the kids’ school and sports, and other obligations, we’re busy,” Tanaka says. “But we definitely make the time because making our kupuna feel loved is a priority.”

While many people thank Tanaka and her daughters for their hard work, Tanaka says they’re the ones who are grateful. “It’s been such an amazing experience and opportunity to give back to the community as a family,” Tanaka says. “My daughters and I have been so privileged to work with community partners and the recipients. We love getting positive feedback and hearing feel-good stories of family members who see the impact of our letters.”

Though the pandemic is considered over, Tanaka and her daughters will continue to run Letters2OurKupuna. “We know that even as we continue to get back to a normal life, our letters can still brighten up someone’s day,” Tanaka says. “You never know who needs a boost of positivity or a kind word. And we can provide that.”

Using creativity to connect
When Lisa Baxa heard about Letters2OurKupuna, she knew she wanted to participate. “I loved the work Michelle Tanaka and her family were doing to reach out to seniors during the pandemic,” Baxa says. “This was a volunteer project I could safely do from home and it was a good fit for me. I can do it at my own pace when I have time and Michelle has been super nice to work with.”

In the beginning, Baxa recycled greeting cards or used pictures from calendars to make cards. “I’ve also added a personal message to preprinted greeting cards or sent emails with a photo and short message,” Baxa says. Today, Baxa has written 200-300 cards and emails. “I just want to reach out to these seniors to say hello and wish them well,” she says.

Volunteering benefits everyone
Participating in Letters2OurKupuna is just one of the ways Baxa volunteers her time. “There are so many volunteer opportunities in our community and you can make a real difference even from home,” Baxa says. “Find one or more that work for you. It’s fun and rewarding.”

Ready, set, write!
To learn more about Letters2OurKupuna or to see how you can get involved, visit their Instagram or email Michelle Takata.  

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