HALIFAX -- A student at a Nova Scotia university has implemented a pen pal project to ensure members of the community stay connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Alyssa Spridgeon is a third-year psychology student at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, St. FX and other universities across the Maritimes were shut down.

“I was there with all of my friends and I just checked my phone. We had all been sort of expecting it to come and we just got the email saying the school had closed,” says Spridgeon.

“It was very sudden and you woke up the next day and everyone was moving out.”

Spridgeon returned to her home in Whitby, Ontario on March 22.

“When I came home, I think this was true for a lot of people, there was this feeling of ‘I miss St. FX, I miss Antigonish,’” says Spridgeon.

When classes resumed online, Spridgeon’s English professor, Dr. Mathas Nilges, suggested his students reframe how they think about the term social distancing.

“He suggested shifting away from that term and looking at it that we have to be physically distant, but we can have social solidarity,” says Spridgeon.

Spridgeon decided she wanted to develop a way to combat the feelings of social isolation for seniors, who could no longer receive visits from family and friends, and young children, who could no longer go to school and see their friends. Thus, The Xaverian Pen Pal Project was born – an initiative to partner St. FX students with Antigonish residents.

“I spent a whole day coming up with the website design and launched it via Facebook and posted it on St. FX pages and different Antigonish groups,” says Spridgeon.

“It took off right away. I was blown away by how many people signed up the first night. Within two or three hours 30 people had signed up.”

Spridgeon says there are now about 130 people partaking in the pen pal project, with more to come as she continues to connect with community organizations.

As a student athlete, Spridgeon says the people of Antigonish are strong supporters of the school’s athletic programs. She notes there is a particularly special connection between the men’s hockey team and their young fans.

“Listening to the little kids who are there and chatting about the players when they are walking out, they look up to these athletes so much and put them on a pedestal,” says Spridgeon.

“Connecting mens hockey players with kids in the community who play hockey, how cool is it to get to chat with the guy you idolize?”

Spridgeon has received positive feedback from parents who say they wanted their children to focus on writing while away from school and the pen pal project has become the perfect forum.

“I’m honestly blown away, I never could have imagined getting the kind of support and the number of encouraging messages about how much people felt they needed something like this at this time,” says Spridgeon.

Spridgeon encourages anyone who would like to make a new friend to reach out.