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An ageless classroom

Pen pals form intergenerational relationships, lasting friendships

Created date

September 25th, 2012

When Janet Boeck responded to one of her first pen pal letters from a fourth grade student at Stonybrook Elementary School, in Kinnelon, N.J., she answered a question that sparked their written relationship for letters to follow. She asked me what was my favorite book when I was young. It was The Secret Garden. She hadn t read it, but she had received it as a gift, and right away we established a connection, Janet says. I think sometimes we forget we have common interests with younger generations. The pen pal program between Stonybrook Elementary and Cedar Crest, the Erickson Living community in Pompton Plains where Janet lives, enters its fourth year this month. It fosters writing and communication skills, and intergenerational relationships.

An arranged exchange

I heard of another Erickson Living community doing the pen pal program">and thought that we would have many residents interested in participating in something like this, says Cedar Crest Resident Life Manager Erica Zayat, who started the program. She was right. Since its inception in 2009, the program has grown from 14 Cedar Crest participants to 37. Amanda Mulligan, Cedar Crest s community resources coordinator, facilitates the exchange, collecting letters from Cedar Crest participants biweekly for six months and delivering them to the school. At the start of each session in the fall and spring, Mulligan distributes basic guidelines, such as don t exchange gifts and try to be neutral when talking about holidays. The groups exchange letters every two weeks, and some pen pals continue writing after the program ends.

Lasting friendship

Marcia Burch, who moved to Cedar Crest in 2006 from Cedar Grove and started participating three years ago, continues her exchange with her very first pen pal, Hayden, now in sixth grade. She was very descriptive, and her questions were so intuitive. I so enjoyed her, Marcia remembers of Hayden s first letters. The second year I got two of triplets, but Hayden asked me to continue to write to her .I watched her go from a fourth grader and watched her mature in her writing and in life. Marcia and Hayden have continued writing for three years, exchanging photos, postcards, and emails. I think what I share with her are things that are different from how I d communicate with someone my age, Marcia says. The students start the exchange with topics like their school experiences, families, interests, and hobbies, as well as asking questions about their pen pal s life. From there, the conversation begins. The residents seem to love participating in this program, Zayat 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 s wonderful that we have this opportunity for this type of intergenerational activity. Stonybrook teachers Mary Kay Catalano and Amy Gardberg say the students also benefit greatly from the program. I think the students get to see how different their pen pal s childhood was from their own, Catalano says. More importantly, she says, They get to see that older people are not to be feared or ignored. They learn how similar their lives are, too. It s fun to find out how much we have in common with young people, Janet says. And I think they feel the same way. They are so open and warm and curious.

Restoring a lost art

One of the initial program participants, Janet joined for the opportunity to get to know the younger generation. Our grandchildren are older, she says. She also enjoys writing old fashioned letters, which we don t do very much anymore. But despite enjoying handwritten letters, Janet admits that emailing is often easier. Students and Cedar Crest participants do both. We ask our students to handwrite the letters, Catalano says. We feel letter writing is becoming a lost art form, and there is something special about getting a piece of mail and holding it in your hands. Students also draw pictures for their pals.

We meet at last

Toward the end of each six-month session, Cedar Crest hosts the students for lunch. They have a chance to meet their pen pals in person, an event everyone anticipates. The whole program is very rewarding, Marcia says. I look forward to receiving letters and making a date for lunch.