Becky Butler, now 21, has always loved books and, as she is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, they are not only a pleasure, but a lifeline. But friendships have not always been so close at hand. Six years ago she joined a penfriend club, Write Away, in the hope of widening her circle of friends.
"I needed the club to combat the feeling of isolation, which can be huge when you have a disability. In mainstream school, which I went to, the isolation can sometimes get worse. I wasn't lonely most of the time, but when I did get lonely it was very bad," she says.
Write Away was founded in 1991 by Nicola Levine, a teacher working with children in mainstream education who were isolated through hearing disabilities. The idea of the club was to help them to get to know others in a similar position who would know how they felt, and to form friendships through writing.
Membership of Write Away grew, a club for adults was formed (for those over 17), and in 2001, in response to requests from the membership, Write Away became fully inclusive, finding penfriends for anyone who wanted to correspond. Since 1991, Write Away has helped more than 23,000 members, many, but by no means all, with disabilities. It offers them as many penfriends as they want, a membership pack, a regular club magazine and special events where they can meet their penfriends.
A couple of years after joining, Becky Butler began to write articles for the Write Away magazine and later to work for the charity as a volunteer.
Meanwhile she completed a degree in English literature at the University of Surrey, Roehampton, and is now beginning a masters degree there in children's literature, with hopes of a career as a journalist or lecturer.
Through Write Away she has made many friends, including one close friend (able-bodied) now studying medieval literature at Durham, and she feels greatly indebted to the club: "Write Away has opened my life. It has given me confidence, and connections. You wouldn't think something that small could do huge things - but it does."
Write Away members can choose whether they would like to be matched to someone similar to themselves, with a disability or without. They can also choose how they communicate; most opt for conventional letter-writing, but some prefer emails or texting, and some record on tape for blind penfriends. "We are not the preservation society for letter writing," says Andy Grout, Write Away's chief executive. "What we offer is a safe and secure system for children and young people to correspond and communicate with one another."
Helping children to form friendships may be the club's chief aim, but a major spin-off is the boost that letter-writing gives their literacy skills. Some schools have already cottoned on to this, and taken out group membership: "Teachers who work with Write Away say it provides writing for a purpose, as well as opportunities to write creatively," says Andy Grout.
"It is a useful literacy tool."
The club plans to develop its resource pack into a fully-fledged unit of work, tied to the national curriculum and designed for whole-class teaching. In April it is launching a promotional tour - by double-decker bus - to encourage schools in the London boroughs of Kensington, Chelsea, Hammersmith and Fulham to form their own Write Away clubs.
All children stand to benefit, says Andy Grout, but the impact is perhaps greatest for those with special needs. As one dyslexic member of Write Away puts it: "My writing is not so boring. You write, you get a reply, you begin to find more interesting things to say, and your writing gets longer."
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