Pen pals for life

Patricia Kunz stood on a spot-lit stage, her voice choking as she read her own words. “Going through cancer, you get strength from anywhere you can. One day, when I felt a little down from chemo, I discovered your drawing and it made me feel stronger again.”

Kunz read from a letter she had written to Jessica Assaf, the teenage girl standing next to her on stage.

It was one of many dramatic moments during a staged reading at the Osher Marin JCC’s Hoytt Theater late last month, which featured 17 adults with life-threatening conditions and 35 teens who corresponded with them.

The San Rafael event was organized by the Firefly Project, a program launched by Cindy Perlis in 1992 that matches teens with seriously ill adults through the old-fashioned medium of letter writing.

As director of UCSF Mount Zion Medical Center’s Art for Recovery program, Perlis routinely finds ways to help patients through expressive means. With the Firefly Project, she has brought together hundreds of adult patients with students from five Bay Area schools — including Brandeis Hillel Jewish Day School in San Rafael — in a monthly exchange of letters.

Fifty of those patients have since died. But the letters, and the impact they’ve had on the teens, live on. And with the staged reading, participants had a chance to share their experiences with the community.

“For patients, it’s an opportunity to tell their stories,” says Perlis. “It helps them relive what it was like to be a teen, with all the angst and joy, and it also brings up a lot of emotion, which is a good thing. People can feel safe enough to say, ‘Life stinks,’ and have it be heard.”

Julia Feldman of Petaluma was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago. For the last four, she’s been a Firefly stalwart.

“You become kind of like best friends,” she says of the pen pal experience. “A lot ask questions they never had anyone to ask before. The kids could ask me anything.”

Although the program is nondenominational, Feldman often found herself paired up with Jewish teens, which pleased her.

“It feels like the typical extended Jewish family,” she adds. “The kids have been very deep, very interested in the world, and that to me is very Jewish.”

For the teens, notes Perlis, the project has helped them learn what life is like for someone who is ill and to get close to an adult other than Mom or Dad. Many pen pals maintain their relationships after the program wraps.

From the beginning of the Firefly Project, many of the teens have been students at Brandeis Hillel. In fact, participation is mandatory for eighth-graders there.

But no one had to twist their arms.

“They’re amazing,” says Perlis of the young letter writers. “They come forward with their very best.”

Davey Feder, 14, a former Brandeis Hillel student and now a freshman at Marin Academy, has been involved with the Firefly Project for two years.

“After the very first letter I felt we became friends,” he says of his latest correspondent, brain cancer patient Laure Oliver. “She has an interesting theory about life after death: that we’re basically energy, and energy can’t be destroyed, so when we die that can’t be the end. It’s reassuring.”

Feder appeared alongside Oliver on stage for the reading. Though they had been writing to each other since the early fall, the two met for the first time only a few days before at the annual Firefly healing service.

“At end of school year, they meet for the first time,” says Perlis. “The students tell the patients what they wish for them, and patients in turn tell students what it has meant to have a relationship.”

For the third year in a row, Perlis brought in playwright Denize Springer to collect the letters and give them some dramatic shape for the reading. “I’ve never had a more rewarding experience,” Springer says. “Each year the material is more moving and of such substance that it blows away anything any writer could come up with on their own.”

No kidding. One student confessed in a letter that her greatest challenges in school are “grammar and sadness.”

Wrote one woman recovering from ovarian cancer, “I have not officially faced my own mortality, but I can sometimes see it out of the corner of my eye.”

For Firefly project coordinator Perlis, the staged reading is more than the culmination of a program. It’s a reaffirmation of life.

“I think the stories are so incredibly important,” she says. “As I read these letters, I feel I have a responsibility to share them with the community. I believe everyone can learn about compassion from these letters and how to take it one step further.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.