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June 15, 2010 > The magic of letter writing

The magic of letter writing

Submitted By Rachael Vander Martin, Communications Specialist, LIFE ElderCare

An excited group of elementary school students filled the Newark Pavilion on Friday, June 11 for the Senior Pen Pal Celebration and Book Launch. Now in its fourth year, the Senior Pen Pal Project is sponsored by the City of Fremont in collaboration with the Tri City Elder Coalition's Pathways to Positive Aging Initiative. It provides an opportunity for elementary school children to develop positive communication and interaction with older adults through the exchange of hand-written letters and classroom visits. For many of the students, the celebration brought them together with their senior pen pal for the very first time.

Suzanne Shenfil, Director of the City of Fremont's Human Services Department, kicked off the celebration by recounting how the pen pal project evolved from a community conversation with seniors five years ago in which they expressed an interest in having more opportunities to interact with the younger generation. "I'm so happy that seniors are now able to share their wisdom and life experience," she said. "In our technological age, getting a handwritten letter is a thrilling experience, and one that I hope will never become obsolete."

During the 2009-2010 school year, 70 seniors and 135 sixth-grade students from Mission San Jose, Weibel and Graham elementary schools wrote three letters to each other in which they shared their backgrounds, interests, hobbies and highlights from their lives. In addition to the letter writing exchange, students from Mission San Jose participated in a book contest that entailed interviewing their respective seniors and writing a story on one aspect of his or her life. A panel of judges granted the first prize award to Amrith Krishnan for his story, Free Together, a first hand account of India's independence from Britain in 1947 as witnessed by his 77-year-old pen pal, Kumarapuram Subramanian. The second and third place winners were Sharon Chen and Julia Noonan.

"The goal of the Senior Pen Pal Project," said Asha Chandra, Pathways to Positive Aging Program Coordinator, "is to remove stereotypes of seniors and children alike, and help change the perception of aging." Chandra initiated the project when her son was a third grader at Mission San Jose and has been an enthusiastic advocate for expanding it to include more seniors and students every year.

Tiffany Lin, a student from Weibel, said that while she enjoys sending and receiving email, "there is magic in getting a letter; it is like opening a present." Many students learned through the letters that the seniors they corresponded with had the same qualities, values and interests they had. One student commented that before the pen pal project he had thought of seniors as old and boring but after learning about the challenges some of them had endured, such as the Great Depression and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he felt humbled by their courage.

Mona Walker, a senior pen pal for two students at Graham Elementary said, "A letter lets you into the inside of a person's life better than anything else. Many of my own grandchildren moved away a long time ago and I now wonder why I didn't write to them. Letter writing seems like a lost art... but how about reviving it?"

This year's Senior Pen Pal Project received generous support from Cargill Salt and the Tri-City Voice newspaper. Sharon Marshak was acknowledged for publishing the book and local artist, Mary Fraga, was acknowledged for her beautiful illustrations. "It has been a remarkable experience to participate in this project involving positive, as well as poignant stories and images from Tri-City older adults that have been transferred to our youth," said Aileen Cox, Human Resources Manager at Cargill. "Through conversations, our community's young and old have come together in a meaningful, educational and lasting exchange."

"Because of the effort and contributions from the City of Fremont, Cargill Salt, and the Newark Unified School District, our students and seniors are able to enjoy the gift of time with each other in thoughtful communication," said Peter Parenti, Principal of Graham Elementary. "I am grateful that this partnership between school and community exists."

If you are interested in joining the Senior Pen Pal Project next year, or if you would like to order copies of the book, contact Asha Chandra at (510) 574-2055.

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