Teen Puts Pen to Paper to Lift Spirits of People With ALS
High school student Cole Spector is giving people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) a reason to smile by becoming their pen pal.
In January, Spector, who turns 17 at the end of this month, started sending cards to ALS residents in San Diego after coming up with the idea in a local volunteer group.
“My goal with it was three things: one, to raise awareness for ALS, and just the disease as a whole; and two, to raise the spirits of people with ALS; and three, just to raise hope to find a cure for those with ALS and then also for their families,” Spector said in a video interview.
Spector writes every card by hand and adds some personality to his note with a joke at the end.
In one he wrote, “Why did the picture go to jail?”
“Because it was framed.”
One of his pen pals, Carmen Woolf, who was diagnosed with ALS four years ago, loves the humor and care Spector puts into his greeting cards.
“I was truly appreciative and felt noticed by someone other than family and friends,” Woolf wrote in an email. “I have sent a couple cards to Cole and we mainly communicate via email quite often and I still include jokes and videos to him which make him laugh. Cole has inspired me to be able to think positive about living with ALS and keep giving me hope to be able to manage it and live as best I can.”
Spector credits his aunt, Marjie Block, with inspiring him to write the notes. Block was diagnosed with ALS 13 years ago when Spector was 3. He’s grown up with her diagnosis and said he has paid attention to the way she has handled living with the disease.
“She really has kept a positive attitude towards it and is still just so loving and amazing,” Spector said. “She really is my inspiration to starting this project.”
Block shares the same admiration for her nephew, who has always been the first to help, whether it’s pushing her in a wheelchair or reaching to get food from a high shelf.
That caring attitude is part of Spector’s personality and PALS4PALS is a reflection of his inner desire to help others, Block said, noting her nephew isn’t the only family member to take up the cause. Block said Spector’s mother, Sheri — Block’s sister — and his father, Steven, have been great role models in fundraising and promoting ALS awareness and research.
“Even if you have a great support system it’s nice to know other people care,” Block said. “I love the idea because Cole can put a smile on my face and he’s helping put smiles on other people’s faces.”
Raising money and awareness for ALS has been part of Spector’s life for a long time. In fifth grade, Spector brought the national fundraising initiative SLAM ALS to his hometown. He also volunteers regularly at the ALS Association Greater San Diego Chapter. PALS4PALS is only his most recent ALS-related effort.
Spector had been writing letters to seniors through a group called Teen Volunteers in Action, which focuses on service projects boys and their parents work on together. That pen pal program was well-received and Spector thought it might have the same impact on people with ALS.
The effort has proved to be popular, too. The people who’ve received cards and letters usually write back, sometimes with their own jokes, like Woolf. Around 200 people with ALS live in the San Diego area, and Spector said he’s communicated with almost all of them.
PALS4PALS has grown over the past six months to include more pen pals from Spector’s surrounding community.
When he spoke at his high school assembly, members of the school’s student governing body pitched in to write about 90 cards on March 14. Students from his old elementary school, Solana Pacific, also contributed. Spector spoke at his synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, and a handful of congregants made greeting cards. He’s also received emails from strangers through his PALS4PALS email account asking if they can help. Along with assistance from his family, Spector has delivered hundreds of notes to people with ALS. He estimates more than 800 notes have been sent, 300 by him alone.
Spector hopes to expand PALS4PALS beyond San Diego and send letters to people in other parts of the country.
The best part for Spector is the feedback he gets from his pen pals.
“When I send mail and emails to the PALS [people with ALS], I get fabulous, amazing responses saying how much that they love it and appreciate it,” Spector said. “It just makes me so happy to know that I’m making a difference in their lives.”