In October of 2010 handwritten letters started passing back and forth between Loyola High School and Lifeworks Mankato. Seventeen Loyola students from Valerie Koch’s class were paired with clients from Lifeworks using letter writing to foster inclusion, assist our clients with reading and writing, but most of all create an opportunity to share friendship.
The idea of having a pen pal dates back to World War II when classrooms of US children were matched with children in other countries. The goal of pen pal programs was to provide a window into different cultures, acknowledge differences, celebrate the similarities, and also encourage literacy. The goal remains the same today.
It has always been a thrill of mine to go to the mail box and find a hand written letter. Don’t get me wrong, I love the immediacy of email and I appreciate spell check, but there is nothing like sitting down to read and reread a hand written letter. Personal correspondence can capture the particular feelings of a time and place as nothing else can. Letters form a personal record of a life lived.
Valerie Koch, the teacher and our partner at Loyola, and I were looking for a way for her students to volunteer given the fact that it had to fit into the school day and the idea of the Write On program was born. Of course there were ground rules established to launch the program; no identifying information was shared like last names, phone numbers, email or home addresses. The information that traveled back and forth was basic, getting to know you types of questions like, what is your favorite color, what kind of music do you like, what is your favorite TV show, or how far have you ever traveled away from home?
After months of corresponding we gathered in the gym at Loyola for a “meet and greet” party. I quizzed our clients as they walked from the parking lot to the high school and asked them what they thought about the Write On program. Their answers were exactly what I had expected them to say, over and over again I heard,
“It was fun. I liked getting letters, I got to know a new person, she liked movies and Justin Bieber too.”
There were a few awkward moments as pen pals were introduced to each other but soon the smiles were out in full force as the pen pals shared the snacks and reinforced the things that they had learned about each other.
I asked Valerie to poll her students about their experience with us. I asked her to check whether her students had also enjoyed the activity. One student said,
“Yes, it was fun writing and getting to meet my pen pal. It was fun meeting them in person and how they remembered a lot of things from my letters.” Another student answered, “Yes, well, doing volunteer work makes me feel value.”
I was curious to know if the students felt that they had learned anything about people with disabilities. The Loyola students responded,
“They really aren’t different from us.” “They share a lot of interests that I have.” “People with disabilities want people’s care and they want friendship just like I do.”
Finally I wanted to know whether this experience had changed their thoughts about people with disabilities and this answer confirmed that this was a good project. Loyola students responded,
“It gave me more respect for them.” “I learned that people with disabilities like the same things that I do.”
Valerie and I are gearing up for the fall of 2011, the Write On project will definitely be a repeat. A typed or email letter can never provide the feeling that a hand written note brings. Each letter in an email is a laser copy of each other letter, there is emotional warmth that comes from handwriting. Thank you Loyola High School for volunteering with Lifeworks, enjoy the summer and we will write to you in the fall.
Written by Kath Pengelly, volunteer and advocate coordinator, Lifeworks Services