Human touch Human touch Through handwriting, alumna shares human touch with those in need

Jill Higson, ’86, gives people a chance to communicate through the written word.

By Ina Zajac | Photo by Anil Kapahi | December 2019

There’s a reason why greeting card commercials bring people to tears, and why emails aren’t printed out and displayed on bedside tables. “Handwriting,” Jill Higson explains, “has the power to transform relationships.”

Higson, ’86, is executive director and co-founder of The Writing Den, a nonprofit that provides those in need, primarily homeless individuals, with the opportunity to communicate and connect with loved ones, employers, housing contacts, city officials and others through handwritten cards and letters.

“Through self-expression, handwriting has the power to transform relationships,” explains Higson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in communication from the UW. “Improved relationships can create possibility for hope and change, and provide the opportunities for work and sustained housing.”

The Writing Den conducts eight monthly “writing dens” in three cities with the largest homeless populations in the U.S., New York (No. 1), Seattle (No. 3) and San Diego (No. 4). The Writing Den partners with each city’s established homeless social-service and community organizations to help those in need.

Higson’s commitment to improving the lives of those in need goes back to her experiences as a member and president of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. The Mercer Island native co-founded The Writing Den with Christian Michaels, her partner since 2016, in honor of Michaels’ late mother, Ernestine “Tina” Diesing. She was passionate about writing in her diary and letters to U.S. friends and family as well as those in her native home of Austria. Michaels oversees operations in San Diego, Higson in New York, and volunteer Kay Stelter, ’87, ’90, a Kappa Alpha Theta alumna, in Seattle.

We provide a much-needed emotional outlet: time to ponder, plan and hope, as well as to create.

Jill Higson

Although small in size, the organization’s impact has been large since its August 2017 launch. More than 2,400 guests have stopped by to write and chat for 200 hours at 100 writing dens. Here are some examples of gratitude and hope shared by guests as well as recipients of their writing:

“Thank you for helping me reconnect with my father.”—Gabriela, daughter, via telephone, July 2018.

“My mother and I did not know our brother was alive until we received his letter. Thank you.”—Tina, sister, via email, June 2018.

Since launching its first writing den in Seattle in February 2019 at Mary’s Place, a day program for women in transitional housing, den events have gained popularity each month. Guests gather around a table laden with paper, pens, postcards and greeting cards, and start writing.

Marty Hartman serves as the executive director of Mary’s Place. She says Stelter’s visits are quite popular. “The women love working with Kay,” Hartman says. “It’s an opportunity for them to feel acknowledged during what can otherwise be a very isolating experience.” Hartman also sees the great benefit each participant receives in addition to reconnecting with family. “It’s cathartic—the time our guests can spend reflecting on their lives and relationships can be incredibly healing,” she says.

Adds Higson: “We provide a much-needed emotional outlet: time to ponder, plan and hope, as well as to create.”

Higson—who in her day job is chief curator and founder of The Art Arsenal, a New York City-based interactive art boutique —and Michaels remain hopeful about the future. However, their personally funded labor of love is now reaching the point where they are not able to explore adding sites due to the financial limitations of current operating expenses. They are pursuing funding via individuals, corporations and grants from organizations.

For more information, to volunteer or donate to The Writing Den, visit or call 917-664-4616. Connect with them on Facebook at and Instagram @thewritingden.