Letters, Love And Prayers: Intergenerational Pen Pals
By Margaret Pysarchyk
One of the most rewarding aspects of my job as a teacher is witnessing the genuine enthusiasm that children display with each new experience. It’s with joy that I’ve watched my students’ faces light up over the really important things in their lives: finally understanding long division, kicking their first ever home run in kickball, or making a new friend. It is this last experience that has most deeply touched the lives of my students and another special group of people. My students are fourth graders at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic School in Lorain, Ohio; their friends are residents of Ss. Cosmas and Damian Adult Home in Staten Island, New York. Two groups of people a world apart in distance and age, but bound together in friendships formed through letters, love, and prayers.
More than seven years ago I read an article in The Orthodox Church concerning a couple who had “adopted” a resident at Ss. Cosmas and Damian. They visited the woman regularly and took her to their home for holidays. I had recently lost the last of my grandparents and greatly missed the companionship of an older person.
Thinking about my babas and feeling a great void in my life, I wrote to the social worker mentioned in the article, Mrs. Shamseh Dalack, and asked her for the name of a lady who might enjoy receiving cards and letters. In the letter I mentioned my Russian Orthodox background and that I was an elementary school teacher. Mrs. Dalack sent a lovely letter with the names of two ladies who were to become for me very dear and special friends. In her letter was also a request: would my students like to write to some people at the Home who were very lonely?
Getting the Children Started
Surely it wasn’t chance, but the hand of God, that had my fourth graders starting a unit on service in their Religion class. I was a bit hesitant about approaching them with the idea of writing to older people who they didn’t know and in all probability would never meet. I was buoyed by the fact that I had two pen pals and hoped that this would spark some interest with the children. I approached them with the idea of service - serving God while serving others. I told them what little I knew at that time about Ss. Cosmas and Damian and that the residents were lonely and would appreciate a card or letter from them. They sat quietly and listened. (Not typical fourth grade behavior!) Little did I know at that time that the seeds of love were being planted in the hearts of my little ones and that a wonderful experience was about to begin for all concerned.
I received another letter from Mrs. Dalack, this time with a list of eighteen names. I wrote the names on the blackboard and let the students pick their pen pals. These people were faceless, but their names generated a great deal of excitement and even a minor skirmish when several students claimed the same pen pal. Lorain is hailed as the “International City” so the children sought out ethnic surnames familiar to them. They identified with people who had the same first name they did, or that of a member of their family. There were few men on that first list, but my boys didn’t hesitate to write to a lady.
It was very near the end of the school year, so we decided to write letters and cards that I would mail throughout the summer. That way, the people would receive something every few weeks until my next class could start writing in the fall.
I still had no idea what was going on in the minds of my “little cherubs.” Was this just an assignment that had to be completed or had the message struck home? I soon found out when one student who seemed weary of writing asked, “But what if they don’t write back?” Before I could answer, another boy immediately piped up, “We’re not doing this just to get a letter back, but to show them that someone cares!” I still can’t put into words how I felt at that moment. It was not the type of response I expected from that student, but I soon discovered that I was to be surprised and delighted by him and many others in the years to come.
Results of the Project
Most of the children have never received answers to their letters and cards, but what excitement when someone has gotten a response! The child usually races into the room clutching the envelope and smiling from ear to ear. We always make a big production out of the letter reading and that child becomes a fourth grade celebrity.
Students entering the fourth grade usually have heard about the letter writing project from older siblings or friends and are eager to pick their new “pen friends.” What always amazes me, though, is the number of fifth to eight grade students who come back each year requesting the name of a pen pal. Sometimes they come in groups, sometimes alone and a bit timid, but always wanting to make a new friend at Ss. Cosmas and Damian.
Several former students have developed very special relationships with their pen pals that have extended into the high school years. One former pupil even visited his pen pal one summer. Of course, these children had very positive experiences not only because of responsive pen pals, but also due to interested and supportive parents who demonstrated to their children the meaning of being a good Christian and set examples for them to follow.
Another group of adults whose support and assistance I have greatly appreciated through the years are the social workers at Ss. Cosmas and Damian. Each year they have updated the list of pen pals and have graciously assumed the responsibility of distributing our packages from Lorain. One social worker even took time from her busy schedule to write monthly letters to us telling about special activities at the Home. This personal touch made all of us feel closer to our pen pals.
Over the years, the children have not only sent cards and letters, they have also said petitions regularly for their pen pals at Mass and have offered special prayers for their deceased friends. We’ve even had a classroom Prayer Tree with a pen pal’s name on each leaf.
For Father Prokopy Power’s 100th birthday, the children made a banner which was signed by all the students in the grades four through eight. (Some children voluntarily came to school one-half hour early just to work on the banner.) One class taped a radio play after learning the residents enjoyed listening to old radio broadcasts on a cassette recorder.
Several years ago during Catholic Schools Week, we showed a special slide presentation about Ss. Cosmas and Damian Adult Home. The students became very involved in the program and a discussion that followed about old age homes and the problems of the elderly. In fact, we became so involved that we missed part of our lunch period and recess-and the children didn’t even mind! Their questions and concerns clearly showed me that they were aware of the problems of growing old in America. Once again I was surprised to discover the empathy the children had developed for older people. I recalled an old Russian proverb, “Youth is not eternal and old age not a joy.” At their tender age, these youngsters discovered this adage to be true. Some children openly expressed to their peers their concern for the elderly and stated that they would have a more Christ-like attitude toward the aged when they became adults. And I believe they will.
The seeds of Love had grown.
1. Children can be introduced to the idea of having a friend in an adult (nursing) home through the book. The Chicken Bone Wish, by Barbara Girion. (Scholastic Book Services, 1978). It’s a humorous but touching story of a fourth grade “klutz” who gains confidence in himself from the “Czar,” a very special friend he meets in a nearby nursing home.
2. See if any seniors in your parish are shut-ins or residents of local nursing homes. They would certainly appreciate being remembered with “card showers” and occasional visits from fellow parishioners.
3. If you are near a particular adult home and plan to visit and/or provide entertainment for the residents (such as Christmas caroling, presenting plays, etc.), it is best to call ahead to arrange a time that is convenient for the residents and to avoid more than one group coming on the same day.
4. For those who live a distance from an adult home, consider sending tape cassettes along with your cards and letters. And don’t forget photos and pictures drawn by the children. They are the little extras that turn pen pals into pen friends!
Margaret Pysarchyk is a member of Ss. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Lorain. Ohio and has taught in the parochial schools for thirteen years.