First person

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2005, 12:00am

Frederick Yeung Ka-ching, 44, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, co-ordinates the Uncle-Long-Legs Letter Box project, which over the past 11 years has provided anonymous pen friends for more than 9,000 children in need of emotional support

The idea for the Uncle-Long-Legs Letter Box project came from a cartoon series that was popular in Hong Kong in 1994. The cartoon was based on Jean Webster's famous book Daddy-Long-Legs and told the story of an orphan who wrote letters to a mysterious guardian she called Daddy-Long-Legs.

She shared her thoughts about daily life in her letters, but the letters were the only way she was able to communicate with this secret person.

We used the same idea because we think that if children write to a secret person about their problems, it can be very therapeutic for them. Some children will even write as many as 44 letters to their Uncle-Long-Legs. Some children have come back to us later as volunteers.

We were the first ones to set up a project like this. I have heard there is another one in Taiwan, but I think in terms of scale, we are the biggest in the world.

We have received over 21,000 letters already and more than 9,000 children have written letters to us. We have 300 volunteers, and we receive 300 letters every month.

Our service is mainly for those aged from 10 to 14. They are not allowed to meet their Uncle-Long-Legs. We try to keep a boundary. That is the rule, except in cases where there is an obvious risk to the child. Once a child wrote to us that she had been raped. In cases like that, we intervene to try to help the child and the family.

Letter writing might seem old-fashioned, but it has a lot of advantages over e-mails, which can be too quick. You send an e-mail and you receive another one a minute later. Writing and receiving letters is quite different.

The process with the Uncle-Long-Legs project has four stages. The first is writing the letter. When you write a letter, you take more time and you have to conceptualise your problem so that you can write about it. Children articulate their inner feelings and the writing process itself can be therapeutic.

The second stage is waiting for the letter. We have a pledge that we will answer each letter within three weeks. Each new child who writes to us will have a special volunteer assigned to answer the letter.

When you are waiting, you develop an expectation and you have some hope. You are very eager to wait for something. Three weeks is quite optimal. Children have time to overcome their problem because time by itself is a healing factor.

The third stage is reading the letter. If it is written well, it can trigger a lot of internal processes and provide a lot of comfort for the child. The fourth stage is rereading the letter.

A letter is very tangible. You can see the handwriting. A lot of children write to us saying: 'I read your letter again and again and again, and it is very helpful to me', especially when the letter contains some praise and encouragement. Children will tend to keep the letters and read them over and over.

A letter is unique, especially for children. It gives them a special feeling that someone far away, very mysterious, is concerned about them.

The children do not only take. They can be very loving and sensitive. They always show consideration and give a lot of support to our volunteers.

I have two sons aged nine and five, and I have learnt a great deal about parenting from the children who write to their Uncle-Long-Legs.

Children can write to Uncle-Long-Legs at 101-116 G/Floor, Choi Lai House, Choi Yuen Estate, Sheung Shui, New Territories. Letters can be in Cantonese or English and should include name, sex, age, grade and a return address.