03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Letter Writing Saves Lives

If you're like me, charity work is something you really want to do--someday. Someday when you're older and not working so hard, when you have more time and money to spare. You'd really like to help make a difference for someone somewhere, but now is the time to look out for yourself. Then it changes to the time you have to look out for your spouse, then eventually your children. Soon you come to realize that day is not coming. No one is handing you a time ticket saying, "Okay, you're free for a while, go off and save the world." As John Lennon once sang, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." If philanthropic work is something you (by you, I mean me) really want to do then the time has to be consciously set aside. Fortunately, there is an effective, altruistic act that doesn't require much time or money. It requires good intentions, which I believe most of us already have.

Here's what you do: Pick a cause, any cause, and find (by find, I mean Google) the letter writing campaign attached to it--the odds of there being one are very good. The research is done for you. All you have to do is read, agree, and send a letter. Many campaigns have an e-mail option, although most emphasize that print letters are still more effective. It takes two extra seconds to cut and paste the letter, print, and mail. I've tried to get myself into the habit of sending both ways. Use the form letters at first, and when you become more familiar with the cause then feel free to articulate your opinion with your own words--always respectfully. Make sure when you send a form letter that you read and agree fully with everything that's written. Send one a month, one a week, one a day if you're up for it. It's inexpensive, and again, very effective.

The Nobel peace prize-winning organization that has launched an exuberant number of full force letter-writing campaigns is Amnesty International (AI). AI was founded in 1961 by a British lawyer named Peter Benenson. He was reading the paper one day, and was disturbed to discover that two Portuguese students had been imprisoned for a term of seven years because they had raised their glasses in a toast to freedom. Benenson wrote to the editor of The Observer requesting readers write letters on their behalf. The response was tremendous and soon letter-writing groups were formed in over a dozen countries. AI is still standing strong as one of the most revered human rights organizations in the world with its main goals to free prisoners of conscience--anyone imprisoned because of their race, religion, color, language, sexual orientation, or belief, so long as they have not used or advocated violence--and to raise awareness about human rights abuses.

If you haven't made a New Year's resolution yet, consider joining AI's Freedom Writer's Network. As a Freedom Writer, you will receive an e-newsletter once a month containing the cases of three people who's basic human rights have been violated. The newsletter will guide you through writing and sending letters on their behalf. Your letters, combined with thousands of others, have a great impact on targeted officials. AI's letter writing campaigns have resulted in the freeing of prisoners of conscience, prosecuting tortures, investigating disappearances, and saving lives. All this is possible with only the cost of paper and postage.

Excerpt from For the Love of Letters: A 21st-Century Guide to the Art of Letter Writing by Samara O'Shea, Copyright 2007, Used by Permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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