Rupa Palanki can still remember the hopelessness she felt when the University of Pennsylvania shut down in-person classes last March due to the pandemic. Palanki, now a 22-year-old Penn senior, had just returned to her hometown of Mobile, Ala., and desperately wanted to help in whatever way she could.

She began talking with friends about possible ways to provide community service during the pandemic, and the idea for Lockdown Letters, an initiative to send letters of appreciation to front-line workers such as doctors, nurses, and teachers, was born.

“We’re all usually very involved in community service, but obviously during the pandemic we can’t actually go out and do the things that we normally did,” Palanki said. “So we figured the next best thing that we could do was support the front-line workers who are out there every day.”

After a number of logistical meetings in March, Lockdown Letters was launched in early April. Palanki and the half-dozen other students who helped found the initiative spent countless hours reaching out to their alumni networks and community service clubs that could help them write letters, as well as emailing school districts and hospitals around the country that would benefit from receiving the letters. To date, the initiative has collected more than 13,000 letters that have reached front-line workers in more than 40 states.

Many of the letters include colorful illustrations and stickers. One letter writer shared how grateful she was that health-care workers were trying so hard to keep communities safe, saying that her uncle has stage 4 cancer and is considered high-risk. Another praised front-line workers for having “big hearts.”

“It’s expanded so much and we’ve had letter writers from [ages] 3 to 73,” said Preethi Kumaran, a 20-year-old Penn student who helped launch the project. “We’ve tried to expand beyond hospitals, like to firefighters and grocery store workers and other establishments we can make contact with. It’s been really cool to see letter writers from all different communities, even without us really pushing or asking. Many of them have been looking to help with something like this.”

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Experts have sounded the alarm on increased burnout and worsening mental health among front-line workers since the beginning of the pandemic. Studies have suggested that health-care workers, in particular, have experienced increased stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia due to COVID-19. Some have said they don’t “feel like heroes anymore” — the moniker many people used to describe front-line workers’ efforts — as the pandemic nears its one-year anniversary.

But words of affirmation can make a real impact, the students found. After the first few batches of letters were sent out in April, health-care workers sent the organizers smiling photos of themselves with the notes.

The letters have received overwhelmingly positive responses from front-line workers. “We have all been working so hard in all of the uncertainty,” said one nurse from Penn Medicine who received notes of appreciation last spring, including from the hospital’s Spread the Love campaign. “It is so heartwarming to see these messages scroll across my screen. For just a minute, I feel better.”

Health-care workers at the George Washington University Hospital have also appreciated the encouragement, said Susan Griffiths, the hospital’s director of communications and business development.

“Through these letters, we have been able to continue to remind our care team that an entire community of support remains behind them and appreciates all that they do,” Griffiths said. “There is no doubt that every letter has helped to bring many smiles to the faces of those on the front line of this pandemic.”

“It was huge to be able to see that we’ve made that connection,” Kumaran said.

“This was the first time that I was able to see a group of us start from an idea, and actually take it through to fruition and achieve that goal that we had set out to do,” she said.

For those who would like to submit a letter, templates and further instructions can be found on the initiative’s website at lockdownletters.org. A PDF version of the letter — either handwritten or typed — can be submitted through a Google form.

“We felt like we didn’t have the money and resources, but the idea was really clear,” Palanki added. “I realized that even though we’re younger, we could still do something really meaningful.”