It all began with a touch of mailbox envy. Eyeing the handwritten letters his roommate seemed to receive on a daily basis, Travis White decided everyone should have that feeling that always accompanies receiving a letter. So he started A Letter for Better, a group of students that randomly chooses names and addresses from the White Pages and sends the unknowing recipients a handwritten letter. The organization now has 45 active members — up from just four when it began. Below, the Central Michigan University student talks to us about pens, Steve Jobs and an unexpected visit from a police officer.
Travis White (right) with ALFB Vice President, Ashley Coners
When did your interest in the epistolary world begin?
It began in my first year of college. I lived (and currently live) in the residence halls at Central Michigan University where we have mailboxes for each one of our rooms. My roommate that I lived with had a girlfriend at the time who attended an institution in Ohio. One of their major forms of communication was through letter writing, and it seemed to me like he received a letter almost every day. Since I was the one who passed the mailbox on a regular basis, I would be the one to pick up all of the mail. A couple months went by that I would open the mailbox, seeing only a letter that would be addressed to him, never seeing the words “Travis White” printed in the handwriting of someone close to me.
One day in late October/early November, we went to lunch in one of the residence halls on campus, when he received an email that was sent directly to his phone. It was from one of the front desk workers notifying him that he had a package waiting for him at the front desk of our residence hall. Being the great friend that he was and knowing that I did not receive any mail before then, he teased me about it.
Jokingly, I told him, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go onto Whitepages.com, find a random address and become pen-pals with them.” It wasn’t until a couple days later that I finally received my first letter in the mail and, surprisingly, it was from my Marching Band back home. I was the Drum Major during my Junior and Senior year of High School, and my entire band wrote to tell me how much they miss me and wished that I would come back to play with them for their Homecoming.
The feeling that that letter gave me was something that I have never experienced before, so I decided to take that and turn it into an student organization. We turned my “joke” into a reality, where we literally go onto Whitepages and find random strangers to write to, simply to make them smile.
How did you recruit members for A Letter for Better?
At first, we had a lot of difficulty recruiting members. Due to the fact that our organization started late into the semester and word was hard to spread around campus, we resorted to promoting on Facebook and flyers around campus. Unfortunately, we ended the year with only four members (including myself), who later became my Executive Board.
At the beginning of each Academic Year, our Office of Student Activities and Involvement hosts an event called Mainstage, where a good majority of student organizations set up tables to promote themselves. A Letter for Better registered and ended up with an emailing list of about 130 people who were interested in joining. After sending out an email announcing our first meeting, we had about 50 people show up where 45 of them are actively involved to this day.
Do you ever receive letters back, and, if so, what’s the most memorable one? I personally have received two responses from my letters, one negative, and one positive.
Negative: I work in the Provost/Executive Vice President’s Office at CMU as a student assistant. I’m basically a secretary so I’m the first student that you see when you walk into the office. One day, a Mt. Pleasant police officer walked into the office and asked to speak with me. After stepping out into the hallway, he told me that he received a call from somebody in Indiana who received a letter from me and asked what that was all about. I began explaining to him what a Letter for Better is and a faint smile grew across his face.
He said, “You know, I thought it was something like that, but the person you wrote to was in her 60s, she lived alone and she was afraid someone was stalking her.” I reassured him that was not the type of message that we were trying to get across at all. He told us that he loved what we were doing and that he wanted us to continue what we were doing, we just needed to do it differently. With that, we include a business card in every one of our letters that explains what a Letter for Better is, what we do and explaining how we get their addresses.
Positive: I actually just so happened to write to a Michigan State University student one day who knew exactly what it was like to receive mail in their college residence hall. She ended up writing me back to let me know what it meant to her. Later, she found me on Facebook and we have been in contact ever since. We also had talk of starting a Letter for Better on MSU’s campus, which is currently in the works.
Why do you enjoy writing correspondence?
I love the feeling that you give and receive when writing letters. The thought that somebody spent at least ten minutes thinking about you and went through the process to write you a letter is something that I feel everyone should experience. As I write to unsuspecting strangers, I always keep in mind that we may catch them at the right moment where we can easily turn their entire day around for the better. Since we have been an organization, I know that there have been at least a couple people that we have made smile, and that makes everything worth it.
What is your favorite step in the process of written correspondence?
My favorite is that moment that you drop a letter in the mailbox, knowing that someone is going to be on the opposite end of that. For the next few days (or weeks) you wait in anticipation, hoping that someone is going to reply back to you, telling you their thoughts. And when they do, the feeling that comes over you is just unexplainable.
If you could be pen pals with anyone in history, to whom would you write and what would you say?
I would definitely have to go with Steve Jobs. After researching so much about him, I just feel that he would have some of the most interesting things to say. That man was so full of imagination and innovation, it’s a shame that he passed so soon.
To whom do you most often write?
I just often write to random strangers across the United States. It’s just cool to think that I have no idea who I am writing to and there’s potential in a new pen pal. There’s so much new information that you can learn about them, the place that they live and life in general, that it’s truly amazing to think about.
Can you describe the most memorable letter or postcard you have ever received?
I feel like every letter that I get is most memorable. Since a Letter for Better has been on NPR, I have been receiving so much support by people that I don’t know. Our mailbox has been flooded with letters from other people who haven’t lost the art of letter writing.
I have also received a package from the pen company, Pilot. They also heard our story and sent us a box full of their pens. We’ve also been looking for donations from supporters so we can purchase stamps. I have been personally funding the organization and now that we are growing, we spend almost $80 a month on stamps and business cards. Our fundraising website is: https://fundly.com/a-letter-for-better. If you’d like to send us letters our address is:
A Letter for Better
Central Michigan University
Bovee U.C. Box 127
Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859
Do you have a favorite stamp or stamp series?
I do not have a favorite stamp or stamp series, but I do have a favorite type of pen! I love to write all my letters with a fountain pen! (Yes, I must be really old fashioned.)
What do you think classic correspondence will look like in a decade or two?
Unfortunately, I feel like the art is dying and I fear that some generations will never know what it’s like to write a letter. I really hope that this is not the case, and that’s why a Letter for Better is trying to bring back letter writing to young students.