An article was recently featured in The Examiner, written by retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. and published on October 21st, 2016. To read the original article, please click here.
Frank Haight: Pen pal program links young and old
What do students at Korte Elementary School in western Independence have in common with residents of The Fountains at Greenbriar, a Watermark retirement community in eastern Independence?
Well, Korte and The Fountains are participating in a unique intergenerational pen pal program where students and residents correspond monthly during the school year. In addition, the reading and the writing of these handwritten letters are part of the class curriculum.
Now in its second year, the popular program – involving a total of 72 students in kindergarten, first and fifth grades – was instigated by The Fountains. Spearheading the pen pal effort is Irene Sessa, a resident of The Fountains, who became a pen pal in the seventh grade, “thus beginning a lifelong hobby that continues to this day,” she says.
No one had to sell Desiree Rogers, Executive Director of The Fountains, on the pen pal program offered last year to first- and second-graders.
“I was very excited about it. I was a pen pal when I was a kid, and I thought this would be something fun for the other kids and for our residents and for our associates,” she says, noting she is actively involved in the program and corresponds with her pen pals.
No one works harder on making the pen pal program a success than Irene, whom Desiree calls a “gogetter.” She recruits the writers, gathers the letters each month and gives them to Jason Barrett, Community Life Director for The Fountains, who delivers them to Ron Alburtus, Korte principal. The pen pal program begins in September with introductory “ ‘hello’ ” letters being sent to participating grades,” Irene says, like the one she wrote last year.
“Hello, My name is Irene, and I would like to be your friend. Would you like to be my pen pal? Do you like school? What is your favorite subject? I loved school and liked all my classes except math. I always liked English best. I am not good at math, so I didn’t like it very much. Have you always lived in Independence? I have lived in four different states – Maryland, Oklahoma, Illinois and Missouri. Do you know where these are? Perhaps you teacher could show you on a map. I was born on a farm in Maryland. That is all the way east to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. I helped on the farm and started driving the tractor to plant crops when I was ten years old. It was fun. …”
These “hello” letters aren’t written to a particular child, Irene says, explaining the teacher randomly hands them out, and the recipient becomes the pen pal of the person whose name is on the letter. The children will then write to their new pen pal. Letters are exchanged every other month.
“They are very appreciative and act like they are thrilled to get the letters,” Irene says, adding: “You maintain that relationship with that particular child throughout that (school) year.”
Irene’s favorite letter was penned last year by a fourth-grader, who writes:
“Dear Irene Sessar, I do have two cats. One is orange and white. Also the other one is black and white. My favorite color is purple. I was born in Independence, Missouri, Feb. 1, 2006, on Wednesday. I really would like to write to you. I also like the way you like to read. I am so excited to be your pen pal. It turns out that you are a sweet, loving and amazing person. I really love your beautiful story. I also love your neat handwriting. I think I must have the best pen pal ever. One more thing is that I have one dad, one stepdad, one mom, one brother and one sister. My stepdad is 50. My mom is 30. My brother is 7. And my sister is 3, because I am 9. One more thing is that I am a little black, Indian, Mexican and also I am white.”
And what do the 16 volunteer participants at The Fountains take away from the pen pal program?
Says Desiree: “I think for our residents it means they have an opportunity to visit again, if only by paper, with folks who are young, (making) them feel young at heart, I think, and also gives them an opportunity to feel like they are giving back and doing something nice for a younger generation. As for the kids,” she continues, ‘It makes them realize that people of all ages are just people, and it doesn’t matter what color their hair is or (what) the color of their skin is. We are just people, and we can be pen pals with each other and we can make friends with people of all ages. I think that is a real cool experience for the kids.”
Jason sees the pen pal program as “particularly helpful,” he says, “because we get to incorporate what is already part of their curriculum, with each grade level developing its writing skills. And it’s an opportunity for them to incorporate what they are learning in school, but also being able to apply it and see what practical application looks like. Now, they are not writing for an assignment, but they are actually writing to someone as part of their assignment. So it’s a great opportunity for them to incorporate what they are learning in the classroom,” he continues, “and then apply it to the pen pals and kind of create that intergenerational discourse between one another. So the kids talk about things they are interested in and the residents talk about things they like, opening up communication between both generations to talk about mundane things they enjoy together.”
The program, Jason says, began as an exploratory type of thing to see if there was an interest to do such a thing … and the school district was “pretty gung-ho about doing it.” As to the future of the program and what it may evolve into, “We are not really sure. But we are just kind of going year by year to see what happens. And as things start to develop, we will change the program to future needs.”
Desiree, though, is sure of this: “We have more students and teachers interested in the program than we can actually accommodate. So I only see this program, growing because they are excited about it.”
Pictured: (Left-to-Right): Desiree Rogers, Irene Sessa and Jason Barrett