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Dear Rogue Valley

Woman writing in spiral notepad placed on bright desktop with coffee cup. Education concept
Jackson County Library Services debuts letter-writing exchange program

The original social media is making a comeback at Jackson County libraries.

No, not MySpace. Not Friendster, either. (Remember Friendster?) The libraries’ correspondence method of focus for the month of June is the pen-and-paper variety. No likes. No memes, gifs or emojis. Just hand-written communication that’s folded up and sealed in a stamped envelope.

It’s part of “Dear Stranger,” a month-long letter exchange program that kicked off at the libraries June 1. The premise is simple: write a letter to a stranger in Jackson County, get one from that stranger. Then — possibly — continue that correspondence.

“The goal of it really is to forge connections between different people throughout Jackson County and help them engage other community members,” says Brianna Levesque, Ashland branch library specialist and Dear Stranger program organizer.

Levesque modeled the program after the Oregon Humanities Dear Stranger program, a statewide letter-exchange program that wrapped its latest installment May 31. The program is offered three times a year, says Karina Briski, Oregon Humanities communications associate. Nearly 1,000 people have exchanged letters through the project since 2014, the program website says.

More information about the state program is available online at www.oregonhumanities.org/programs/other-projects/dear-stranger.

Both programs are a way for people who have been somewhat isolated since the start of the pandemic to reengage, Levesque says.

“Between that and the fires and everything our community has gone through, I think it’s a good opportunity for us to share things about how everybody has survived the past year in this way,” Levesque says. “I just hope that people can connect with someone genuinely.”

It’s part of the larger Readers Are Leaders summer theme at the libraries, says Carrie Turney Ross, libraries adult services coordinator. That comes with a focus on civic engagement and area residents taking on leadership roles in their community.

“The more (Levesque and I) talked about it, the more I thought, ’This is exactly what people need right now after a year of very little contact with the outside world and really very few opportunities to meet new people,’” Turney Ross says. “This Dear Stranger idea is a way of connecting people in a very real way, and in a lost art of letter writing.”

Turney Ross experienced some of that isolation herself during the pandemic. She and her husband moved from Denton, Texas, to the Rogue Valley less than two months before the initial COVID-19 lockdowns began.

“We really had very little contact with anyone other than my work colleagues through Zoom and Teams,” Turney Ross says. “It was just the two of us and our dogs and finding ways to make adventures in Southern Oregon that were still safe.”

A program like this, Turney Ross says, is a way to reconnect with the community and meet someone new.

There are a few prompts available for anyone with writer’s block: What does community mean to you? How are you a leader in your community, or how would you like to be? What are your favorite things about living in Southern Oregon?

But, Levesque says, those putting pen to paper shouldn’t feel constrained by the prompts.

“People can really write about anything,” she says.

There isn’t any algorithmic process about how to match participants. The main goal is to pair people with others from different ZIP codes. Ashland, meet Central Point. Medford, this is Jacksonville, etc. Other than that, it will be somewhat random.

“Our mission is to connect people to information, ideas and each other,” Turney Ross says. “Through this letter writing, that checks off all of those boxes.”

Letter writers should include their name and return address on the envelope, but not within the body of the letter. The letters will be removed from the original envelopes to keep letter writers anonymous.

“Please remember that what you share in the letter (such as details about yourself, photos, etc.) may contain information that could identify you,” the event website says.

Staff will read all letters before they are exchanged.

“There will be instructions for how people can indicate that they would like to further communicate with whoever they’re matched with,” Levesque says. “And if both parties do that, then they can just continue writing to each other.”

Finished letters can be dropped off at any Jackson County library branch or sent in the mail. The letter should be addressed to:

Dear Stranger, c/o Adult Services, Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland, OR 97520

Participants are asked to print out and include a filled out release form, available at https://jcls.libcal.com/event/7657134, in the envelope.

The letters must be received by June 30 and will be mailed out to matched participants in July.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanpfeil.