What happens when fifth-graders at Conger Elementary are paired up as pen pals with volunteers from SourcePoint? The realization they have plenty in common despite the many years between them.
Amber Bauer, Conger Elementary fifth-grade teacher and coordinator, said the program wasn’t her idea, nor did she start it.
“It was a teacher at Buckeye Valley that started the pen pal program,” she said.
Bauer said she only volunteered to keep the program going.
She added the kids are told their pen pals are older. She said some of the kids are a little apprehensive at first, but as they write back and forth with each other, they find they have a lot in common.
Both the fifth-graders at Conger and the volunteers at SourcePoint were given the assignment to read “Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer” by Kelly Jones. The two pen pals write back and forth discussing their ideas about the books.
Bauer said some of the questions the kids ask are,“When do you know there is a baby in the egg, and when you can eat it?” or “How many eggs can a chicken lay?”
Bauer said some of the kids were unaware that there are many different colors of chickens besides white. She also said they didn’t know that of some the chickens were egg layers only, and others were raised for meat.
Not all of the kids’ questions are centered around the books they are reading at the time as the volunteers get some pretty interesting questions asked about themselves.
Martha Fikes said she has been a pen pal volunteer for six years. In those six years, Fikes said, the books they have read that stick out in her mind were about Vietnam and one about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“I tell them about the Cuban Missile Crisis or Martin Luther King Jr. and the political things that were happening at that time,” she said. “I’d say I remember this and tell them of examples of what I’ve seen or done. I was there for that, and it really happened.”
Fikes said she tries to make a connection with her pen pals.
“I always try to bring in something related to the book,” she said. “I had one girl ask me 10 different questions. What’s your favorite animal? What’s your favorite food? How old are you? They all want to know how old I am. I never answer that one.”
At least she doesn’t directly.
“I say I’m old enough to be your grandma, and I have a grandchild,” she said. “I never say how old I am.”
Fikes said she learns about her pen pals’ families or what fascinates them.
“One boy liked trains,” she said. “He would tell me about the roundhouses and all the different trains that run through Ohio on all the different railroad lines.”
Fikes said they would also talk a little about the book, but his letters to her were mostly about trains.
John Brinkerhoff said this was his second year participating in the pen pal program, and he plans to continue with it as long as it is offered. He said he thought it was a very smart program.
“It encourages young people to read, first of all, and connecting them to older people encourages them to think,” he said. “Writing and reading the letters improves their vocabulary and writing skills.”
Brinkerhoff said the adults benefit as well as the kids by seeing how smart and considerate young ones can be.
“I sure don’t recall being that socially advanced when I was a fifth-grader,” he said. “My pen pal turned out to be a wonderful young person who seemed eager to ask questions and listen to the answers.”
Once the book is read and the letters have been written back and forth between the pen pals, they finally get to meet. Usually, there is a small party that brings the pen pals together.
Bauer said the kids are always excited to meet the pen pals and will make posters about a week ahead of the meeting.
“Lately, there have been no kids absent on the day they meet,” she said. “It’s a sense of pride and a neat experience for them.”
This year’s program is different from past years as it’s now at the Stratford Ecological Center on Liberty Road. Stratford received a grant that allowed the organization to buy the books and host a party at the end of the program.
“They are excited and eager to put on a good show when we come and have our parties,” Fikes said. “It’s not unusual to get hugs when you meet your students for the first time. Until you do meet, it’s kind of exciting for both parties, I think.”
Fikes said some kids have never put their hand in a running stream. She hopes the experience gives them a little exposure to nature.
“Hopefully, it will be more fun for the kids,” she said. “Some don’t know that food doesn’t come from a grocery store or in a sack. Some kids are afraid to even walk in a woods because they’re afraid stray bears are going to be there.”
Bauer said that some of the kids will continue to write their pen pals when they are well into college.
“One of the pen pals from last year is in touch with her pen pal from last year,” she said.