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Project Brighton: How 100 letters and a Sussex car park changed lives. Alison Hitchcock spoke to Latest Homes about her From Me to You campaign
When friends Alison Hitchcock and Brian Greenley tell people about the From Me to You campaign, a project encouraging us to write letters to friends with cancer, words like inspiring, wonderful and amazing are thrown back at them. But when they’re asked how they came up with the idea, no one seems prepared for the answer: “From a car park in Sussex”.
In 2009 Alison and Brian had met on yoga holiday in India. They got on well, meeting up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither would have described themselves as anything other than acquaintances. In 2010 Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps because she didn’t know what to say, Alison offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, she says, she’s not sure what possessed her – by her own admission she was no writer. But a promise was a promise!
The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian’s bowel cancer developed to stage four, Alison kept on writing. She’d promised that the letters would be cheerful so she knew she had to make them funny.
“I spent my week watching the world through different eyes, looking for the eccentric and the absurd, or at least something that could become a witty story”, Alison said. “I began to cherish the time I took for myself when I sat, alone, and wrote. It felt very good to be doing something for someone else and it took away that feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.”
Her enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters.
“Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much,” he recalls. “The letters helped me to feel reconnected with the real world.” Brian had plenty of friends and family but still felt isolated during his cancer treatment. It is common that when someone receives a cancer diagnosis, even the most well meaning friends can distance themselves, fearful of what to say and how to say it.
“Something as simple as a card or letter makes you feel reconnected again,” said Brian. “Knowing that someone is thinking of you can change your whole outlook on the day.”
Fast forward to today. Brian is now four years clear of cancer, Alison’s letters continue, even if less frequently, and the once acquaintances are now best of friends. The letters encouraged Alison to leave her job in the City and instead pursue an MA in Creative Writing, write a novel and have short stories published. Brian began a health and wellbeing blog aimed at men over 50.
After having their letter story recorded by BBC Sussex for Radio 4’s The Listening Project, the pair were inspired to start a national campaign, From Me to You, which encourages people to write letters to friends suffering from cancer – keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. The idea came to the pair as they sat in the BBC Sussex recording booth parked up in a Sussex car park.
From Me to You runs letter writing workshops, they speak at events and the website www.frommetoyouletters.co.uk hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.
On 18th March they are holding a letter writing workshop in Brighton with New Writing South. The workshop helps overcome fears about writing that first letter and getting on to put pen to paper. They also welcome people who want to write a letter to a cancer patient they don’t know, to brighten their day.