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story.lead_photo.caption Amy Shores, director of pastoral care at Methodist Family Health, and her intern, Christine Donakey, show letters written to children housed at the facility. Donakey, a Hendrix College student, came up with the idea of a pen-pal type of program.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Methodist Family Health is looking for pen and prayer pals to lift the spirits of children and teenagers who are cooped up at the facility during the covid-19 pandemic.

Methodist Family Health offers inpatient psychiatric hospitalization for children ages 3 to 17 who are struggling with psychiatric, behavioral, emotional or spiritual concerns.

As the virus continues to spread, the children housed at the agency's facilities are not able to do the things they normally do -- such as visits from family members and field trips.

Amy Shores, director of pastoral care at the agency, was brainstorming ideas to uplift the kids with her intern, Christine Donakey. A student at Hendrix College, Donakey came up with the idea of a pen-pal type of program.

"I think covid has forced everybody to get creative and ... to do things that we need to do in different ways," Shores says.

"I think that is what spirituality does -- it helps bring encouragement and positivity to them and they are just not getting that in any other form," she says.

To get the program started, Shores reached out to youth groups, women's groups and churches to find letter writers. People began responding including some from Atlanta.

"It's kind of spreading on social media and it is exciting to see," Shores says. "Obviously the kids are going to enjoy anything they get, but if they know people in Atlanta are thinking about them it is even more exciting."

Amy Shores, director of pastoral care at Methodist Family Health, and Hendrix College student Christine Donakey worked together to come up with a pen-pal program to raise the spirits of kids staying at Methodist Family Health facilities.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Because of patient confidentiality laws, the letter writers do not know the identity of their pen pals. And because of that same confidentiality, the kids generally are not allowed to write back. But just getting a note has brightened many a child's day.

Here are some of the comments from five of the kids who received cards:

"This card makes me believe that God loves me and that I am special."

"Wow! This is so cool that a stranger took the time to write me! Someone does really care!"

"It's fun to get letters from people you don't know!"

"How'd they know I like Jesus too?"

"Getting these letters reminds me of my Mom."

During a typical summer, Shores works with the kids on Bible lessons and takes them on field trips to the zoo, bowling and swimming. Now she sends them weekly packets with the Bible lessons to do on their own.

"Normally, their families will come in, and they'll get to visit them, and they'll get to earn passes to go home for the weekend and things like that," Shores says. "But right now we're not even doing any of that because the [covid-19] numbers are so high. If one kid goes home and somebody has that or is exposed to somebody, that can affect the whole building. It is such close quarters."

But Shores does try to promote a silver lining.

"I am trying to tell them it's a good time right now to get the treatment that you need because everything on the outside is kind of shut down," she says. "Take care of yourself. Get what you need and that way when you [go] back out, maybe the world will kind of be back to normal."

Methodist Family Health also offers outpatient counseling clinics; grief counseling services; psychiatric residential treatment centers; therapeutic group homes; school-based counseling services; therapeutic day treatment programs for kindergarten through 12th grades; and services for mothers struggling with substance abuse and a mental health problem, according to its website.

In its residential facility, Methodist Family houses about 40 children. Another 60 are at the agency's hospital and eight are in group homes. The agency also has about 20 children in a residential facility near Jonesboro, Shores says.

"It's hard to even kind of reach out to do video calls because they don't have phones," she says. "They can't have things like that right now. As part of treatment, they're just not allowed to have social media."

The youngest child who has been receiving letters from pen pals is 5 years old. The facility is home to kids ages 3-17, according to its website.

"I even like getting letters. I'm excited to get any written notes. I think they all enjoy it," Shores says of the kids. "It gives them someone new to kind of think about and get that encouragement."

For Arkansans who want to participate in the program, Shores suggests including a favorite scripture or quote, a poem or handmade artwork.

To participate in the program electronically, go to forms.gle/jYSZYCG3n9Twp2hW7. Letters can be sent to Prayer Pals at 3505 Clearwell Road, Conway, AR 72034.

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