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'You have something in common': Nonprofit connects strangers through letter writing

Every year, Oregon Humanities connects hundreds of people from all backgrounds with their "Dear Stranger" program.

PORTLAND, Oregon — These days, you can connect with just about anyone instantly, thanks to technology. But a local nonprofit is helping strangers connect in a more old fashioned way.

The program is called Dear Stranger. Oregon Humanities started it eight years ago, in line with their mission of connecting people from different backgrounds and helping them learn from each other. Organizers said it really took off during the pandemic when the need for connection was acute.

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“It's a very intimate kind of communication to open up that letter and see something that came from another person; they held that letter in their hands,” said Ben Waterhouse, communications director at Oregon Humanities. “That's not an opportunity you get with email.”

Three times a year, the nonprofit provides a theme or word prompt for the letters. This season the word is “Care," which is also the current theme of Oregon Humanities’ magazine. But Waterhouse said participants can write about anything in their letter, and share as little or as much about themselves as they want to.

The nonprofit pairs participants at random, making sure only that they live in different zip codes.

“Everything is forwarded through our office,” said Waterhouse. “We read all the letters before we send them out. We very rarely have had to reject a letter.”

Waterhouse said after the first letter, it’s up to the participants if they want to keep writing to each other. He said they often do.

“Purely by chance there were two poets that were connected and they've been writing poems back and forth,” he said.

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Most letters come from Oregonians, though Waterhouse said they've received them from 29 states and three countries. Writers have ranged in age from 6 to 96 years old

“Whomever you’re matched with, you’re going to find out that you have something in common,” said Waterhouse.

To take part, participants need to register online, then mail their letter to Oregon Humanities' office at 610 SW Alder, Suite 1111 Portland, OR 97205. Letters for this round must be received by June 30.