by Dennis Dalman
Elleah Eiynck, a third-grader at Kennedy Community School, grinned bashfully when she finally met in person Samantha Ernst, the woman she’d been corresponding with for nearly a year.
Corresponding in this case means the old-fashioned way. Via hand-written letters. The kind you have to seal by licking the envelopes shut, the kind on which you have to slap on a postage stamp and drop in a mailbox.
Eiynck, of St. Joseph, is just one of many Kennedy third-graders in the St. Cloud school district’s Volunteer Pen Pal program. Two classes of the students had a chance to meet their correspondents in person May 23 at the school for two special get-together celebrations complete with juice and plates full of cookies. Some of the adult volunteers were not able to make the celebrations, which took place in two classrooms – those of teacher Ann Hartwig and Deanna Hausmann. Hausmann volunteered to shepherd the program at Kennedy several years ago.
The Pen Pals program promotes communication by children connecting with others (strangers at first) who are not related to their in-school social world. The pen-pal experience can also bridge cultural religious differences through kindness and understanding. And last but not least it promotes what seems to be a lost art in the computer era – good penmanship.
Pen Pals is just one of many offerings of the St. Cloud school district’s Community Education. So far, it is also being done by third-graders at Oak Hill and Talahi Community schools. There are plans to extend it to other schools in the coming years, said Nantha Viswanathan, a community education volunteer who attended the May 23 celebrations at Kennedy. There are about 40 volunteer pen pals who write the school’s third-graders once a month throughout the school year, Viswanathan noted.
When Eiynck and Ernst met, they enjoyed their casual chat in teacher Hausmann’s bustling, noisy classroom.
“I like writing her,” Eiynck said, smiling at Ernst. “We catch up on what is going on in the school.”
Ernst works in planning and compliance for the Reading and Math program, which helps students in the school district develop and sharpen their skills in those areas.
“It’s so nice to meet Elleah,” she said. “I like the Pen Pals program because it’s a chance to help kids, to see what they’re doing and to help the kids and the volunteers feel rooted to the community.”
In teacher Hartwig’s classroom, just down the hall, students first shared some haikus they’d written. Then they paired up with their Pen Pals volunteers for heartfelt chats. Each of the students presented the pen pals with the latest letter they had written to them. Student Derek Hommerding of St. Cloud handed his letter to Margie Schlangen, also of St. Cloud. His letter was an exciting summary of what he’d seen on a trip to the Minnesota Zoo: a Komodo dragon, monkeys, a sloth and how he “even got to pet a shark.”
At another table sat student Maia Fremo of Cold Spring and her pen pal, Lori Eich of Sauk Rapids, who works for United Way.
Fremo’s letter expressed her excitement about an upcoming trip to Britain with her mother, who is an art teacher.
“I like writing,” Fremo said. “And I like to draw pictures too.”
Eich also enjoys writing, and being a pen pal is a great way to get to know someone – namely Maia – that she would otherwise not get to know.
At yet another table, student Salman Ahmed of St. Joseph visited with his pen pal Jane Holmberg of St. Cloud. Holmberg does work for the Boy Scouts and is also a member of the St. Cloud Optimists’ Club.
“A couple years ago, someone asked me to become part of the Pen Pals program,” said Holmberg. “I agreed, of course, because I always like meeting new kids.”
Ahmed also likes the program because it’s fun to write letters and, he added, “because asking questions is fun.”
There is always a need for volunteers in the Pen Pals program. Those who volunteer must be 14 years old or older and be willing to commit to the program (one letter per month) for at least one year.
To find out more about how to volunteer, visit the school district’s website at www.isd742.org/volunteer.
Author: Dennis Dalman
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.