Maintaining connections amid a pandemic
One of the core tenets of Unbound is building relationships of mutual respect. While relationships between sponsors and their sponsored friends have always formed across distances, mainly through correspondence, the COVID-19 pandemic created barriers to Unbound’s normal letter-writing process.
In 2019, the organization processed almost 1.3 million letters and photos from sponsored children, youths and elders to their sponsors. Before the pandemic, where sponsored friends wrote their letters by hand and how they would be delivered to the local Unbound offices varied. It typically involved an in-person interaction.
Sometimes the interaction involved sponsored friends writing letters during Unbound events, or a social worker or a member of the local mothers group collecting letters that were written at home. All letters would go through the local Unbound office before being sent to the headquarters in Kansas City. For correspondence from sponsors to their sponsored friends, social workers typically delivered those letters in person.
This process was disrupted by pandemic lockdowns last March. As the lockdowns continued into April, our international staff voiced their concerns about being able to collect letters from sponsored friends without spreading the virus. This prompted families and staff to get creative.
PHOTOS 1 & 2: Sponsored children Sarah, 12, (left) and Peter, 11, (right), write letters to their Unbound sponsors. Letter writing is the primary way sponsors and their sponsored friends are able to get to know each other and stay in touch.
PHOTO 3: Sponsored child John, 10, from Kenya holds up a picture he drew for his sponsor in the U.S. Giving the shy lad moral support are his mother, Josephine (left) and sister Eunice (right.)
Taking advantage of technology
Many families served by Unbound have limited internet access, especially when their income is disrupted by a pandemic and resources are going to food, housing and other immediate needs. Despite the constraints, most sponsored friends have some access to text message, phone or email, often through purchased data on a smart phone or a neighbor's landline. As lines of digital communication were established between families and Unbound staff, options for sending letters to sponsors also became available.
According to Jorge Castaneda, translation manager for Unbound in El Salvador, families have several options for sending their letters. He said they could send letters via email, the messaging platform WhatsApp or text either as a typed message or as a photo of a handwritten letter or via phone by dictating their letter to a staff member.
"So why is this important?" asked Dan Pearson, director of international programs at Unbound. "… When the staff get back to the office after their lockdown periods, they will be able to continue the correspondence without putting anyone's health at risk.”
Kenyan child John, 10, is still learning to write, so he draws pictures for his sponsor. He loves to do artwork.
Closing the digital loop
Communication between sponsors and sponsored friends is a main part of the Unbound program. Sending letters by mail, however, is a source of increasing hurdles because of rising international postal costs and unreliable mail service in many of the countries where Unbound works. The organization has been working for many years to find better ways to ensure letters can continue to flow.
In 2011, Unbound launched eLetters, which allowed sponsors to send their sponsored friends a letter via the website. Since their launch, eLetters have continued to improve and can now be sent through the Unbound app.
To increase digital options for sponsors, Unbound implemented digital letters from sponsored friends in March of last year. Letters from sponsored individuals are scanned as PDFs and sent to Kansas City. PDFs are emailed to sponsors or printed out and mailed for those without an email address on file.
"The benefit for sponsors to receive their sponsored friend's letters [through email] is quicker access to those letters rather than receiving them via regular mail," said Marisa Reeder, the phone team manager for Unbound. "This also provides opportunity for sponsors to send an eLetter to their sponsored friend in response to the letter they received, since mail to many of the countries we work in is suspended or staff are unable to receive mail during this unprecedented time. This method also saves Unbound on the cost of mailing letters to sponsors."
Unbound is dedicated to continued innovation in the area of communication between sponsors and sponsored friends. So what's next? The organization is looking into options to create a digital delivery system for sponsored friends to send letters and annual photos to sponsors through Unbound’s website and mobile app.
"When that finishes," Pearson said, "we will have the option of a digital delivery for all parts of the correspondence process, and that's a huge step forward for the organization and is something that we've talked about for a long time. We've been able to execute [innovations] really quite rapidly."
Photo 1: Nursing student and Unbound sponsored youth Pablo in Guatemala communicates with families served by Unbound in his community. When a child and family complete their letter for their sponsor, they take a picture of it and send it to Pablo, who forwards it to the Unbound social worker for their area. Pablo says being a link between families and the Unbound staff during the pandemic is one way he can help eradicate poverty.
Photo 2: Unbound social worker Alicia Andrea Peneleu in Guatemala uses digital platforms to communicate with families she serves. She says about half of families have access to platforms like WhatsApp. For those without access, other community members play a critical role in keeping them connected.
Unbound's mobile app makes it easy for sponsors to read letters from their sponsored friends and write to them. Sponsors can even send a photo through the app. This short video walks them through simple steps for using it.