The Firefly Project

"Thanks a million for sending your latest letter. As I read it I realized that through there is over a 40 year difference between us, your words ring true for my soul. What I see in life is that though there are things that remain the same and predictable, the only constant is change."
- Barbara H., Patient

Firefly Project

About the Firefly Project

High school students, along with UCSF Medical/Nursing students exchange hand-written letters and personal artwork with adult patients who are coping with life-threatening illness. Students learn what it feels like to cope with serious illness, undergo chemotherapy, face the unknown and most importantly; how not to be afraid of asking serious questions. Patients have the opportunity to give back to their communities as they teach the students about hope and pain, and remember what it was like to be a teenager. Students share their lives including their own pain of growing up and feelings about their future. Bridges are built and friendships created - even after the school year ends.

Approximately 500 adults living with life-threatening illnesses have participated since the inception of this project. Over 50 of these patients have passed away - a few of them have died while participating in the project. Students then have an opportunity to grieve and heal and to acknowledge that dying is part of living. At the end of the school year, Art for Recovery holds a healing service attended by the students and patients where they meet each other for the first time. This program always delivers a meaningful experience for both teenagers and patients who are coping with loss, pain, anger, loneliness and isolation. Students who have participated in the past have remarked that while they may not remember what they learned in History or English they will always remember their patient/pen pals.

The project continues its 17th year involving students and patients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2006, there were 70 student and 40 patient participants. Each year since 2003, a public reading has been staged at year-end. The facilitator of the Firefly Project works with a script consultant to shape the excerpts from the letters into a dramatic form. Finally, the patients and students read excerpts from their letters on stage before a community audience.

A Firefly Manual is available for anyone who would like to learn how to replicate the Firefly Project. For information about obtaining a Firefly Project Manual, please email Cindy Perlis directly.

Participate in the Firefly Project

  • Do you like to write letters?
  • Do you enjoy mentoring a teenager?
  • Would you like to exchange letters and art work with a UCSF medical, nursing or pharmacy student or a Bay Area teenager?
  • Would you like to remember what it was like to be a teenager?

Click for more information on how to participate

The Firefly Project is generously funded by: Mount Zion Health Fund, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Lloyd Symington Foundation, The Auxiliary at UCSF Mount Zion Medical Center.


How to Participate

“Thanks a million for sending your latest letter. As I read it I realized that through there is over a 40 year difference between us, your words ring true for my soul. What I see in life is that though there are things that remain the same and predictable, the only constant is change.” -Barbara H., Patient

How to Participate

We invite you to join us in a monthly exchange of letters and art work between adults coping with illness and teenagers (and sometimes medical students) coping with life.

What is the Firefly Project and Who do I Contact?

A monthly exchange of letters (hand-written or typed) along with a simple drawing, collage, cartoon, or any art work that can be added to your monthly exchange to your pen pal. CONTACT: CINDY PERLIS, 415.885.7221 OR Email [email protected] for information and to sign up.

Who participates?

Participants are adults coping with a life-threatening illness and healthy teenagers coping with life. Medical Students/Nursing students participate as well. The teens/patients are from all over the Bay Area.

What does it involve?

Once a month (or every six weeks depending on holidays) you will respond to letters/art work sent to you. The students will receive the letters either hand delivered by me at school or sent through the mail. Mostly, the patients will receive them in the mail with a stamped self-addressed envelop back to me, Cindy Perlis, and a note with information about the Project and the date when your response is due in my office at UCSF Mount Zion. You are asked to write a thoughtful, personal letter and create a simple art work. Your time involvement is about two hours once a month.

What is the Healing Service?

At the end of the school year (in early May) you will be invited to meet your pen pal for the first time after writing to them all year. Students will be asked to tell what this experience has meant. Patients will be asked to bring a symbol of healing to present to your students.

What is the Adaptation?

During the past five years we have adapted the conversations in the letters into a script. Both the students and participating adults (patients) will read the final adaptation on stage (script in hand).

Watch a video about the Firefly Project Magic Theatre Adaptation

Why should I participate in this project?

The adults will have the opportunity to become a mentor to a student, helping them to deal with all the issues and drama that are part of their lives. If you are writing to a teenager or Medical Student you will have the opportunity to share your experience and openly express how you feel. Everyone will all learn about empathy and compassion and be reminded of how valuable life really is.

The Students will have the opportunity to create a friendship with someone who is not in their "world" and be able to talk about their life experiences and to learn how illness is part of living.