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by Judith Hruz
Relationships come in all forms, and this one comes in color, on construction paper, between two very different communities, and in a world full of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.
Last August, the fourth-graders of St. John the Baptist Catholic School on New Hampshire Avenue in Colesville wrote a letter to a resident at Brooke Grove Retirement Village, said Judy Jenkins, writing coach at St. John the Baptist.
“Last summer more and more news accounts depicted stories of nursing home patients being isolated away from family and friends,” Jenkins said. “I thought at that time wouldn’t it be cool for those older people to have a pen pal — a young child to exchange stories with during this time.”
She reached out to a few local facilities and Susan Phillips, LIFE Enrichment and community coordinator for The Cottages Independent Living at Brooke Grove, responded quickly.
When school started, the fourth-graders were excited to get started on the project.
That first correspondence included sent a self-portrait – “which were too cute,” Jenkins said – and the project evolved into an exchange between the residents and the students since that time.
The pen pal program “has been a happy and uplifting thing for our independent living residents during the pandemic,” Phillips said. “I cannot say enough good things about Judy Jenkins and her amazing students.”
But don’t think it’s been just another school assignment for the students.
“Some of the kids have written to their pen pals beyond class time and are always eager to write the next letter,” Jenkins said.
The residents have written back every time, Phillips said. Some have sent letters directly to the school and then the students have responded with letters written on their own time.
After the introductory self-portraits, the Brooke Grove residents received Thanksgiving letters with artistic Thanksgiving blessing cards included. They also received Valentine’s Day letters.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Jenkins delivered another batch of letters to Brooke Grove, along with cherry blossom tree windsocks that the students made for the residents.
Some of the residents have saved everything they have received from their pen pals, Phillips said. Their refrigerators have become the bulletin board for all of the artwork.
The independent living residents are “thoroughly enjoying this relationship,” Phillips said.
“Many of the residents are educators or have had other fascinating careers,” she said. “All of them have stories to tell and really interesting life experiences. They have so much to share and the students really seem to appreciate their letters.”
St. John the Baptist School has a strong tradition of service and community outreach, Jenkins said.
This year the needs have been great, she said, so throughout the year the schools has collected donations for a food pantry that operates close to the school and collected over 1,000 pairs of socks for men, women and children at area shelters. At Christmas, families bought and wrapped gifts for needy children.
“In the midst of the pandemic, the needs are tremendous,” Jenkins said. “While we cannot possibly respond to all of them, we do try to do our little part. Every little part contributes to the big picture. The kids realize how much they have to be appreciative for by doing for others, especially the needy who live right in our area.”
As for the pen pal relationship, the Brooke Grove residents and St. John the Baptist students have come to realize how important that has been.
And it appears it will last far longer than the pandemic.
“I look forward to the day when they can all meet and really sit down together and visit,” Phillips said.
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