Back in April as the pandemic was first surging, we published a short “Look for the Helpers” profile about a letter-writing campaign by a group of PRUMC members who wanted to thank healthcare workers at Piedmont Hospital. At that time, about 200 letters had been produced by 15 writers in what was obviously an inspired project. No one imagined, though, that the originator’s “little idea”, as she calls it, would expand to become a restorative wave that has lifted up over 3,500 letter recipients at four major hospitals across Atlanta as well as nearly 60 letter writers themselves.
That’s a little idea we needed to learn more about.
When we reached out to Becky Matherne, the originator, she resisted being interviewed, as she had refused for the earlier story. (“Doesn’t want the credit,” a colleague on the project laughingly commented. “She feels other people have done all the work.”) After some arm-twisting, however, we heard a heartfelt story that exemplifies how an urge to say “I see you” during a difficult situation can become a tonic for weary souls everywhere.
When All Seems Desperate, Listen
“Since I retired some years ago,” Becky reflects, “I’ve tried to shift my focus and just listen. I’ve really wanted God to tell me how and where I should be involved in projects. And then last year, when this pandemic started, I think all of us felt trapped, especially early on when we knew so little about COVID. We didn’t know whether things like touching groceries could be dangerous – yet there on TV were these heroes in hospitals, working 24 hours a day, knowingly risking their lives. You want to run to a hospital and volunteer, which of course you can’t do. I felt helpless and prayed about that a lot.”
She was also haunted by how these workers would be emotionally affected by what they were experiencing. “I couldn’t stop thinking about how much they might be hurting. I wanted to talk to them, and the only way I could think of to do that was to write letters. But I really wanted to talk personally to them, and that meant I needed their names. I had no idea how I could get those.” She reached out to the first link in what would become a dedicated chain of people asking for and offering help on this project.
“I’ve known my own doctor, a Piedmont physician, for 30 years,” Becky says. “After I told her what I was trying to do, she put me in touch with an executive at Piedmont. So I had a conversation with him and told him that I believed each of those heroes needed a prayer just for them. I knew a letter wouldn’t touch everybody the same way, but I knew there was somebody in there who needed to hear that prayer and know how much they matter.”
His reply was quick and affirming. “This will change lives. People will read these over and over, they’ll post them on their desks. I will help you get names. Just tell me how many letters you can write.”
Becky had never considered this but answered just as quickly: “As many as you can give me!” He gave her 215 names of doctors and nurses.
Send the Ripples Outward
“I was prepared to write a lot of letters, but I was blessed to have many come alongside who believed in this idea and wanted to help,” she says. “Our Intercessory Prayer Ministry (IPM) at PRUMC was a natural fit for this project. I felt like these are the people who will understand what’s needed, and boy, do they know how to write a special letter!” She reached out to longtime friend Brittany Charron, the PRUMC staff member who helps to support IPM, and got an enthusiastic buy-in. After they established logistics and careful confidentiality practices (IPM would maintain control of the entire list, and individual letter writers would see only names and titles for their own list), volunteer writers jumped on board and Becky managed logistics.
As they got deeper into the project, some letter writers started thinking about the hospital heroes who weren’t visible on the evening news. “We hadn’t delivered that first round yet,” Becky says, “when some of our writers asked, ‘What about the kitchen staff? What about the environmental or sanitation workers who watch donated food being wheeled past them for delivery to doctors and nurses, and then go in and clean that up?’ So back I went to Piedmont to ask for those names.”
Volunteers also wondered about writing to other hospitals. Because Becky didn’t have a connection to get names at any other hospitals, she started asking around and was connected to Ben Black, a PRUMC member who’s moved away but remains very connected to the church. “Ben offered to put me in touch with someone at Northside, which was where we wrote letters next,” she says. “And then he put me in touch with someone at Grady, where we’ve now written to multiple groups.”
From the beginning, the project took on its own inspirational push/pull, with new rounds of names prompting Becky to reach out to more groups as potential writers, and other inspired writers asking her if they could help – which in turn prompted her to reach out to hospitals asking for yet more names. Choir members, teenaged children of letter writers, and other community members got involved as they learned about the letters. One such offer was very personal, Becky remembers. “After reading the first article the church published about this, Neal Sumter, a good friend who was hospitalized with COVID last year, contacted me. He said, ‘I want to be part of this, and I want to write to Emory, because those folks saved my life.’ “
After Neal did some digging and found a contact at Emory Healthcare, they were eventually able to obtain 900 names. Becky remembers delivering the letters to that Emory executive as one of her happiest days. “He smiled at me and said, ‘I get to be Santa Claus today, and that’s amazing. I am taking these around and delivering them myself!’ “
In every case, she notes, hospital contacts have been moved by the letter offer, so happy to have their employees’ efforts recognized, and willing to pull whatever levers necessary to make the logistics work. The recipient list has been expanded at some hospitals to include behavioral health employees and chaplains dealing with enormous grief, C-suite employees scrambling to find resources and make difficult choices, and many others.
Grady’s Perspective on the Letters
Becky’s hopes on the letters’ effect are echoed by her contact at Grady Health System, Leslie Marshburn, who is Executive Director of Strategy and Population Health. “I think these letters pull our people out of their day-to-day stress for a few moments and remind them that they are doing heroes’ work, they’re helping their broader community, and their work is being recognized by people who aren’t directly benefiting from it,” Leslie comments. “They see that their community is supporting them and appreciates the sacrifices they’re making.”
She adds, “I know that our leaders also have really appreciated being able to offer their employees some additional support and positivity. Our employees have been very touched that the church would do this for them, and not just the frontline people. You’ve also written letters to the environmental services staff and kitchen staff at our nursing home in East Point, to our hospital chaplains, security staff, transport, respiratory therapists, ancillary providers, and others.
“The effort Becky and the PRUMC volunteers put into keeping the letters organized has been incredible and made it very easy for us to manage, distribute and take advantage of this opportunity despite the challenges faced by our staff. And Becky has been so heartwarming and supportive.” (Leslie also adds that the church seems to draw real commitment from its members, noting that Ben Black, who is a family friend and the member who connected Becky with her, moved away from Atlanta years ago but remains ever close to PRUMC and always tries to plan a visit to Atlanta around the special Fourth of July worship service.)
Be the Hands and Feet
Becky marvels at the commitment of the writers, with no one tiring as she thought they might after writing 20, 30 or 50-plus letters. “They are angels. I just send out an e-mail and say, ‘Ok, I have 280 names for Grady,’ and immediately it starts pinging back, ‘I’ll take 20’, ‘I’ll take 50’, and so forth. To me, this is about being the Hands and Feet of Jesus. So many people saw the vision and have inspired me to keep expanding this project.”
When asked where the project goes from here, she says they will keep writing as long as these hospitals have people who can be helped by hearing from them. “When you see a need you fill it. When Brittany and I first talked about this, we thought we’d be writing a few hundred letters. That’s not how it went! My heart has been so full, seeing God through all of this. I’ve gotten to know so many more PRUMC members, and they all have amazing hearts for service.”
She is reflective about the meaning of this connection between people. “We don’t really know what the impact is, but I do know we don’t have to spend a lot of money to have real impact. In something like this, you think you’re going to help other people, you’re just loving on them. But truly, you are seeing that back double. It’s humbling to think and write about what these healthcare workers are going through, to put on paper what you’re praying about. I just pray that somebody who was having a challenging day was helped to come back and do it all again the next day because they were fed by this love fed to them.”
Volunteer Letter Writers
Susan, Thomas, Eleanor, Hayes and Ben Carroll
Brittany, Aubrey and Cecile Charron
Don, Aiden and Tyler Harte
Jo Ann Mustian
Sarah Crossman, Chris, Gabrielle Joy, Cecily, and Henry Sullivan