Pen pal program has the write stuff

Effort pairing students with adult pen pals seeks volunteers

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

Published:

 

How to Help

Volunteer Connections is seeking more adults for its RSVP Pen Pal program. Visit www.hsc-wa.org/volunteer-center for more information and to sign up.

Kaylei Lane, 11, adorns a letter with dog stickers and a drawing of a dragon in her fifth-grade class at Burnt Bridge Creek Elementary School.

In the letter, destined for a pen pal she’s never met, Kaylei gushes about her pets and frets about her aunt’s coming move several states away to Arizona. Once a month, eager fifth-graders at six schools in Clark County receive and respond to letters they exchange with adult pen pals.

“It’s really exciting,” Kaylei said Tuesday as she dotted the envelope of her two-page letter with glitter. “You don’t know what it’s going to say.”

It’s that kind of excitement that’s prompting Volunteer Connections, which administers the RSVP Pen Pal program, to put out the call for more adult volunteers. More schools and students want to write letters than the program has the adults to accommodate, coordinator Steve Smith said.

“It’s adult driven,” Smith said.

Volunteers and children write letters to each other every month for a full school year. Coordinators deliver messages back and forth from classrooms to adults. The program serves Title I schools, which have high rates of students in free and reduced-price lunch programs.

There are some limits to what adults can write about — politics, religion and specific details about where they live and what they do, for example, are off limits — and volunteers must undergo a basic background check. At the end of the year, students meet their pen pals at a party organized by Volunteer Connections.

Burnt Bridge Creek Elementary School was added to the program this year, and Lindy Sims’ fifth-grade class has taken on the project with gusto. Her class of 10- and 11-year-olds quietly decorated their letters Tuesday before sending them off to their pen pals.

Volunteers and school officials alike tout both the social and the academic benefits of the program. From an academic perspective, Sims said, the letters have put some important skills into context. It’s helped students with their typing, their spelling and understanding how to form paragraphs.

“I’ve been feeling confident about writing stuff,” said 11-year-old Ethan Osorio as he scribbled a red, white, and blue motif on his envelope.

But even more so, Sims said, the students are developing relationships with adults outside of their immediate circle.

“It’s just these really sweet, special human moments,” Sims said.

One of her students, 10-year-old Diego Torres, recently moved, she said. Having a pen pal has helped him through that transition, and Diego said it’s nice to have an adult to talk to because his family frequently works at night.

“I think it’s really fun,” Diego said. “It’s helpful.”

Pat Tucker, 78, has been a volunteer for the program for three years. She also reads with Sims’ students and delivers their letters.

“They’re really excited,” she said. “That was a surprise to me in this day of video games. I feel like the Pied Piper when I get here.”

As Tuesday’s letter-writing session wound down, Courtney Butler, 10, splattered glitter across the envelope of her latest letter, which divulges her holiday plans. Courtney can hardly contain her excitement each time a new letter arrives.

“It feels like I kind of want to explode but in a good way,” she said.