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‘Teens helping teens’: An organization sends letters of encouragement to those struggling with mental health

Natalie Salvatierra
Natalie Salvatierra, 16, delivers letters of encouragement to patients in the Mental Health Inpatient Center at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“Are you ready to spread some sunshine?” reads the all-caps subhead on a Solely Sunshine web page. Below the question are suggestions on what to include or not include in a letter addressed to a patient at a mental health facility.

Solely Sunshine is an organization whose mission is to help those coping with mental health conditions. Anyone can submit notes of encouragement online or via snail mail. The digital notes are transcribed onto letters and sent to mental health facilities around the world.

So far, over 1,000 letters have been delivered to people in 32 states and 35 countries.

The genesis of the organization started with Natalie Salvatierra, a 16-year-old Foothill High School student.

In March, her mom, Heather Salvatierra, shared an article about people with mental health issues, particularly those dealing with an OCD-related hand-washing compulsion, having a harder time during the pandemic.

“I found it really interesting and I also have lots of family members who have dealt with mental health conditions,” Natalie said. “It’s just something that’s close to my heart. I want the letters to bring encouragement, love and support so that people know that they’re not alone.”

She posted on Instagram a call to write letters and received a good response. By May, she built a website and enlisted the help of the Girl Scouts for initial guidance and to make Solely Sunshine a Gold Award project.

Now the reach has expanded to members from the Assistance League of Tustin, teen-led nonprofits, a Vancouver-located rotary club and other groups who help transcribe letters.

“It’s a lot of teens helping teens,” said Heather. “It’s amazing that via social media, she’s able to reach so many people through this project and it’s so timely because people are kind of trapped inside from COVID and they do want to help.”

Solely Sunshine letters
Letters like these are given to mental health hospitals and facilities around the world.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

For Natalie, the best part is hearing back from people who received the letters. One facility created a wall to post the letters. Another facility had kids ask for tape to post them in their rooms. She said the most well-received letters are those written by people who have experienced a mental health condition and offer advice.

“I hope that people in the mental health facilities if they receive a letter from someone in a different country who might be going through the same thing as them, it just makes them feel like everything’s going to be OK because other people can relate to them,” said Natalie.

When deciding where to send the letters, Natalie does research on facilities and therapeutic boarding schools but also takes requests.

She won the Baskin-Robbins Pint-Sized Heroes award after being nominated by her mother. In addition to free ice cream for a year, Baskin-Robbins donated $5,000 to the organizations of her choice — the Assistance League of Tustin and the Children’s Hospital of Orange County mental health facility, which is also one of the local spots that receive the letters.

Natalie is no stranger to writing about mental health. In June, she published a children’s picture book “Do Not Worry, Little Donkey” about dealing with anxiety.

In between her junior year classes, Natalie plans to continue Solely Sunshine at least until she graduates.

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