Hey You Got Mail!: How Gen Zs spread cheer to socially isolated seniors

The month of December is often known as the season of giving. But for some young Samaritans, the season of giving is all year round. Kaya speaks to three youths – Ru Xin, Harini and Alicia who are driving the heart-warming initiative “Hey, You Got Mail!” and how their movement to connect socially isolated seniors has grown from a pandemic initiative to an enduring kindness collective.

  • 12 Dec 2023
Alicia (right) and Verlyn (left) with a resident during a distribution.

Alicia (right) and Verlyn (left) with a resident during a distribution.

Every month, it’s a spirited affair as various youths fan out in full force across housing estates to personally hand out handmade cards to the elderly.

By striking up meaningful conversations, they hope to ease the seniors’ loneliness as they befriend someone new and expand their social circles. In turn, the youths gain inspiration, and valuable life insights from their new senior friends. 

Most importantly, for these youth volunteers, seeing the elderly beam with happiness makes their effort worthwhile.

This is Hey, You Got Mail! (HYGM) — a ground-up initiative sparked by six friends from Victoria Junior College amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Their humble idea quickly became popular on social media, drawing more youths looking to make a difference. The group started mailing handmade cards to elderly living in one-room flats. 

Ru Xin, Alicia and Harini (left to right) holding onto the cards they distributed for Deepavali 2023.

Ru Xin, Alicia and Harini (left to right) holding onto the cards they distributed for Deepavali 2023.

Today, the baton has been passed on to a new generation of EXCO committee members like Ru Xin, Harini and Alicia to keep the movement going. Comprising 13 members, they draw a diverse mix of youths aged 15 to 20 years.

A volunteer holding onto the cards they distributed for Deepavali.

A volunteer holding onto the cards they distributed for Deepavali.

Designing cards for good 

Before their monthly distribution drives, the HYGM community would gather to write and design heartfelt messages on cards in all four vernacular languages. They spend hours penning well-wishes, creating colourful illustrations, glueing pop-up rainbow umbrellas and more.

Some might wonder, why card writing? Its meditative quality allows the youths to slow down, and reflect on their own relationship with their grandparents. Surprisingly, these card writing sessions usually see the biggest turnout of youth volunteers.

To date, over 15,000 cards have been delivered to seniors. Since its inception, HYGM has worked with organisations like SASCO Senior Citizens' Home, Methodist Welfare Services, and Geylang East Home For The Aged, among others.
Alicia laughing with residents during a distribution.

Alicia laughing with residents during a distribution.

Spreading joy in the housing estates 

A key aspect of HYGM involves volunteers going door-to-door to various estates with a large number of seniors such as Macpherson, Ang Mo Kio and West Coast.

Beyond cards, the HYGM team also distributes other daily essentials like drinks and biscuits. In the lead-up festive seasons, they’ll also give related items like murukku snacks during the recent Deepavali celebrations. 

During these visits, the youths inject a sense of lively energy and joy as they chat with the seniors. Additionally, they also help keep an eye on the seniors’ physical and mental well-being – such as signs of the elderly appearing disengaged, lethargic or anxious – which they later share with their partner organisations. 

These visits come as a surprise to the elderly. Some might appear reticent and reserved at first, but later warm up to the youths, even readily posing for a classic Gen Z 0.5x selfie. 

For Macpherson location head Ru Xin, joining HYGM was a natural extension of her past volunteering stints like Flag Day during her National Police Cadet Corps days in secondary school. She is currently a year one mass comms student at the National University of Singapore.   

The 20-year-old finds a deep sense of happiness in helping people, and continues to find fulfilment in seeing EXCO members’ shared enthusiasm, and connecting with beneficiaries and volunteers on the ground. 

Ru Xin says, “I’ll tell them things like, ‘Aunty, you look very pretty today, or wow I really like your hair, you dyed it purple!’ Small compliments like these really make their day.”

Added Alicia, fellow exco committee member,  “Many of them are touched that youths will take the time to volunteer and give back to society, and the friendlier seniors will even chat with us about their life experiences and ask about ours in return…We want the seniors to feel cared for and loved by their community.

New ways of engaging   

Over the past year, HYGM’s format has taken new forms such as scrapbooking and pen-pal programmes, tele-befriending and organising fun outings with the seniors.

In Scrapbook Edition, volunteers head down to partner nursing homes or senior activity centres. They are attached to a senior and co-create a personalised scrapbook, which serves as a physical memento for the senior to keep and reminisce.

Recently, HYGM piloted a new Ang Mo Kio PenPal programme, where four seniors and youths would exchange weekly letters to keep the engagement going.

On top of that, HYGM partners active ageing centres, senior centres and homes to organise outings and activities for the elderly. For instance, they held a community outreach carnival at Geylang East for seniors to play games.

They also hold buddy events where the seniors and youths venture out to interesting places in Singapore. So far, they’ve checked out the artworks together at the National Museum and enjoyed a leisurely picnic at West Coast Park. 
The youth volunteers from Hey, You Got Mail! at a distribution.

The youth volunteers from Hey, You Got Mail! at a distribution.

More than just helping people

As the youths have discovered, giving isn’t all about monetary or food donations. It can simply be about sharing your time, talent, treasure and voice in support of any cause you’re passionate about. The youths also feel empowered, as they hone their leadership, event planning skills and work on their own personal growth.

For introverts like Ru Xin, organising events and mingling with seniors and volunteers outside of her usual social circle keeps her “grounded and curious.”

“Every small thing matters. Sometimes you are anxious that the seniors might not like your events or activities, but these small gestures matter… Even if you’re just a student, you can make a difference,” said Ru Xin.

For publicity head Harini, she has grown from just planning and designing content to now learning to communicate with and manage people better.

Initially, Harini had thought that volunteering was a good way to practise dabbling in design. In 2021, she joined HYGM during a recruitment drive to design activity books for seniors. 

When she saw the passion radiating from other volunteers — even secondary school students who happily forked out their time —   she felt compelled to stay on.

Such intergenerational volunteerism initiatives play an increasingly important role in Singapore’s ageing society, and the youths hope that more will spring up in the years to come. 

“We want to spread the message to seniors that you’re not alone, that there are many people you can connect with in the community,” Harini says.