Victor Cabias and Mary Kouchkarian are no strangers to writing love letters: They regularly exchanged them for two years while long-distance dating.
Four years ago, however, the ink ran dry when Kouchkarian received her last letter from Cabias.
Now, the couple is happily married in Seattle – but they admit something has been missing from their relationship.
Cabias and Kouchkarian both missed writing letters so much, that without the other knowing it, they both subscribed to the same pen pal service.
Now, they plan to write letters together on the “cute stationery items” they purchased.
It sounds like the plot for a romantic drama, but it’s real – and the couple has Scottsdale residents Colleen Schwab and her husband Byron Schwab for bringing letter writing back into their lives.
Colleen founded Pen Pal Life, a Scottsdale company that hand-matches subscribers and keeps their addresses private.
Once matched, subscribers pay either a nominal $5 monthly fee for domestic matches or a $7.50 for international matches, then send their letters to one central location.
From there, the letters are placed into different envelopes without addresses and other personal information and sent off to the final location.
“The letters are never read. I really want to stress that, that the communication between pen pals is kept of extreme confidence,” said Colleen, whose business partners include Byron, chief technology officer, and Ken Pyra, head of operations.
Since Pen Pal Life’s debut on Sept. 15, they’ve had 20 matches.
“We have matched people already all across the world, from Canada and the UK to people across the United States. So, it’s going really well so far, and we’re really excited,” Colleen said.
Colleen believes the company’s been successful so far because people crave connection amid this global pandemic.
For example, Colleen said, “one of the people from the UK is a mom to two young kids, and she wanted to connect and learn how a mom in the United States would approach different situations.”
Stateside, the Seattle couple joined Pen Pal Life because it reminded them of how “cathartic” it was to write letter to each other.
“The letter writing process really shaped our relationship,” Kouchkarian said “I imagined what this could look like in a friendship and felt nostalgic since the last letter I got was probably from Victor almost four years ago. I decided I couldn’t leave it up to my imagination and signed up.”
“Now that they are married, they think that this is such a great tradition,” Colleen added.
Cabias and Kouchkarian also liked that Pen Pal Life kept their privacy intact.
“I can still share my location within my letter if I want, but Pen Pal Life not forcing the exchange was a big part of why I signed up,” Cabias said.
Pen Pal Life has subscribers of all ages – their youngest is 17 and the oldest is around 50. Kids and teens under 18 can sign up for Pen Pal Life with parent permission.
While the idea for Pen Pal Life came to Colleen two years ago, it officially launched mid-September, largely due to the global pandemic.
Not only did Colleen have more time on nights and weekends to dedicate to the new company but the concept of connection became much more important.
“When you look at what is happening with the world and how we’ve all been so isolated due to COVID-19 and the uncertainty that we all live in, it’s just a critical time,” she said.
According to the June 2020 study “Addressing Loneliness in the Era of COVID-19,”
“With more adults than ever before living alone and a large proportion of older adults without access to online connectivity tools, the U.S. has a dangerously fertile environment for an epidemic of loneliness caused by COVID-19 social distancing strategies.”
The stats don’t end there.
According to an April survey by social-advice company SocialPro, 47 percent of adults reported feeling lonelier than usual since stay-at-home orders were instated.
And according to data published by the CDC, 47 percent of people under 30 reported feeling anxious in July.
“When you look at [the statistics], people are trying to find ways to connect with other people, and social media starts to be a place that isn’t always trusted anymore. But then where do people go? How do people connect?” Colleen asked.
“The end goal is that Pen Pal Life is one of those solutions for human connection. We’ve got to go back to the letter writing.”
Colleen also launched a pen-pals-for-seniors program called Pen Pal Shake in an effort to combat loneliness among seniors during the holidays.
According to a report published by NORC at the University of Chicago in April, the pandemic made about one-third of adults 70 and older lonelier than usual.
“My sister-in-law works for a senior living community and she was highlighting to me the gap that seniors are currently faced with due to COVID,” Colleen said.
“We really are trying to fill that gap,” she continued. “We would love to be able to connect seniors with pen pals during the holiday season. I think one of the things that hasn’t been talked about enough is that this is going to be our first holiday season during COVID.”
Pen Pal Shake is a free, 10-weeks-long program that connects seniors with a pen pal partner committed to writing letters.
Pen Pal Life is still recruiting seniors for the program, and those interested can fill out the contact form on Pen Pal Life’s website.
“I created [Pen Pal Life] so that we could bring back letter writing in a major way and allow people to see the world through somebody else’s eyes,” Colleen said.
“Nothing would make me happier than having thousands of pen pals all across the world that felt safe and secure to not share their home address but were able to actually write letters and connect.”