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Pen pals rekindle lost art, form unlikely friendships

Created date

July 27th, 2010
For all that you ve been through, I think it made you who you are today, 10-year-old Maya wrote to her pen pal, Patricia Shiels. [caption id="attachment_13562" align="alignright" width="280" caption="Pen pals Pat Shiels and 10-year-old Maya meet for the first time at Cedar Crest, where Shiels lives. They had been writing letters for six months. (Photo by Erica Koizim)"][/caption] She s a very profound, sweet girl, says Shiels, who lives atCedar Crest. The first thing she asked me was if she could call me Pat. Shiels volunteered to become a pen pal to Maya s fourth grade class at Stoneybrook Elementary School in Kinnelon, N.J. Erica Koizim,Cedar Crest scommunity resources manager who arranged the exchange, collects letters from residents and delivers them to the school. She started the program last year with 14Cedar Crestneighbors participating; this year, 22 people who live at the community took part. I heard of anotherErickson communitydoing the pen pal program...and thought that we would have many residents interested in participating in something like this, Koizim says. Mrs. Mary Kay Catalano, one of the fourth-grade teachers [at Stoneybrook Elementary], loved the idea. I arranged a meeting for interested residents to sign up to be a pen pal. Koizim distributes basic guidelines, such as don t exchange gifts and try to be neutral when talking about holidays. The two groups exchange letters every two weeks for six months, and Koizim says some pen pals continue writing after the program ends. The residents seem to love participating in this program, Koizim says. Many of them are retired teachers, and it brings them back to the days that they spent countless hours with young people. For some of them, it is simply the joy of writing a letter, a lost art. For others, they treat their pen pals like surrogate grandchildren. It is wonderful that we have the opportunity for this type of intergenerational activity.

Lasting friendship

For Shiels and Maya, their friendship developed into one that both will cherish forever. We talked about everything, Shiels says. We told each other about our families, and we had discussions about things that had happened to us in our lives. I think she enjoyed writing to me. Shiels, a former paralegal, loves to write now that she s retired. She writes for Mountain Matters, a monthly periodical produced by fellowCedar Crestneighbors. But mostly, she says, she writes simple things. When I think of something to say, I sit down and I write about it, she explains, citing a short essay she wrote the morning of this interview called What is a smile.

Ageless classroom

Toward the end of the six-month letter exchange, theCedar Crestpen pals invited their fourth-grade friends to lunch at one of the community s restaurants. Finally, Shiels and Maya met the person on the other side of the pen. And though they were scheduled to stop communicating through the school s program, they traded addresses and plan to continue to write.

Topics for writing to a pen pal

If you like the idea of being a pen pal but can t think of anything to write about, here are some suggestions:
  • What is your favorite color or type of music? Describe how it makes you feel.
  • What are your favorite holidays and traditions? Tell a story about a recent holiday experience.
  • What is your typical day? Describe it using sensory details and vivid imagery.
  • What is your favorite book?
  • Summarize it in your own words, then explain why you like it.
  • What are your favorite foods? Write about eating those foods and how they make you feel.
  • What are your favorite memories created with your family? Explain them using anecdotes.