I found a penpal on Instagram, and we send each other *amazing* care packages each month

If you’re anything like me, you sometimes (maybe more like all the time) find yourself tumbling down the dizzying, selfie-walled rabbit hole of Instagram. Often, click by mind-numbing click, you eventually land with a thud on a page rife with celebrity gossip, shocked and a little embarrassed at the full-on wars being waged between complete strangers in the comments section. After wiping the trail of drool off your chin and blinking incredulously at the clock as you register just how much time has passed since you began scrolling, you may find yourself wondering if Instagram does more harm than good. It’s easy for bullies to hide behind the anonymity of the internet. We all know this. It takes little to no effort for them to hurl insults like hand grenades, conveniently closing the app with a satisfied smirk after they pull the pin.

When it comes to the interwebz, tearing someone down is an easy (and sleazy) task. But what about building something special — what about making meaningful, real connections with people, based on friendship and kindness and unquantifiable levels of awesome? This is harder to do, and let’s face it, patience and effort are a dying duo in an age where instant gratification is king. Well, I’m here to tell you that you CAN make new, lasting, genuine friendships TODAY *insert flashing infomercial graphics here.* And — you may want to sit down for this one — you can make them, surprisingly enough, through Instagram. I have the story to prove it.

It was the summer of 2014, and I was vacationing in Europe with my family. I had made it my mission to consume as much afternoon tea as I possibly could before I left London, and posted a photo on Instagram proclaiming my love for the tradition (I am fully convinced I could live off of tiny, crustless sandwiches and scones for the rest of my days). I received a comment on the photo from Hannah, a UK resident and follower of my account, recommending the whimsical Alice in Wonderland-themed tea at the Sanderson hotel, which turned out to be just as wonderful as she had claimed.

After I returned to California, I posted a photo of the sugar coma-inducing pile of Cadbury chocolate I had brought home with me, noting in the caption that “The Cadbury they sell in the States just isn’t the same!” Hannah commented that she would be happy to send me some chocolate whenever I wanted it, and suggested that we “trade” candies from our respective countries through the mail.

I had never heard of a more brilliant idea.

Hannah and I became what she deemed “International Candy Pals.” We exchanged messages on Instagram, listing our favorite things (she adored peanut butter and found it harder to get in England, I just wanted as much of that Cadbury chocolate as I could get) and discovering our shared interests (cats, Disneyland, and the best cooking show in the history of cooking shows, BBC’s The Great British Bake Off). The only real “rule” we had was to try our best to include items unique to our respective home countries (or to countries we would visit). We exchanged addresses and began collecting snacks and small gifts for one another, agreeing to post our packages at the end of the month.

Since then, our parcels have become more and more elaborate, simply because we have so much damn fun putting them together. Cardboard boxes covered in colorful tape and stickers make their way (very, very slowly) to our doorsteps, stuffed to the brim with candy, socks, clothing, stickers and other specially chosen trinkets. Anytime I’m shopping, especially when I’m on vacation, I’ll often pick up souvenirs in pairs – one for me, one for Hannah – and I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I’ve sent her jewelry from Japan, candles from Colorado, and mugs from Disneyland. Once I have enough to fill a box, I write a letter, tuck it in, and head to the post office.

When I receive one of Hannah’s boxes in the mail, it’s like Christmas and my birthday and every other celebratory occasion (I’m looking at you, Girl Scout cookie season) all wrapped into one. Yet as much as I try to steer clear of tired clichés, sometimes they’re true — it really is better to give than to receive. I love collecting gifts to send to Hannah. It’s exciting to imagine a little parcel of happiness traversing the globe, landing in the lap of someone very special who might be in need of a pick-me-up. Speaking from experience, Hannah’s gifts have made me smile, made me laugh out loud, even made me misty. We now communicate several times a week, just to check in, to share photos, to support one another. You know, things real-life friends do.

And so, a two-years-young friendship built on the most solid of foundations (that would be candy and Disney, for those playing along at home) all started on Instagram. Beyond Drake memes, cat videos and celebrity-endorsed detox tea, there are real friendships to be made. On social media, there are real people who can brighten your world, if you just take the time to get to know your virtual community a little bit better. It’s true — social media CAN be used for good. But, just like everything worth having, you have to give your time, energy and dedication. Do this, and you’ll form friendships that transcend likes and comments, built on thoughtfulness, caring, sisterhood and support. And, of course, on chocolate.

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