It was a birthday party, an end-of-the-school-year celebration and the first face-to-face meeting of pen pals at the Northland Shepherd’s Center on May 13.
Fifth-graders from St. Patrick School were there to meet their pen pals in person, entertain them with a skit and a song, and share cupcakes, pizza and ice cream floats.
The pen pals also discovered that they shared many hobbies and interests despite the decades difference in their ages.
“We both played basketball, and we like sports and music,” said fifth-grader Bri Chirpich about her 90-year-old pen pal, Mary Catherine Gibbs of North Kansas City.
Bri and 19 of her classmates exchanged correspondence with a group of seniors in Pens Across the Northland, a program introduced in January as part of the Northland Shepherd’s Center’s 25th anniversary celebration. Many of those involved are older than 65, though some members are in their 50s and early 60s.
Writing letters gave those who had lived through many decades a chance to recount their experiences and memories, and it connected 10- and 11-year-old youngsters with an older generation. The pen pal program is one of the activities at the center’s Learning & Laughter club, which meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month.
The letters were not sent through the mail. Instead, packets were hand-delivered between the school and the center throughout the month. Typically, the students would receive letters from their pen pals on the second Wednesday of the month.
For a generation used to communicating electronically, “when they got their letters, it was like opening gifts,” said teacher Debbie Blackman of the students’ response. “They were so excited.”
Students then would work on their letters in class, and their correspondence would be delivered to the seniors at Learning & Laughter on the fourth Wednesday.
Often the students embellished their letters with drawings or included photos of themselves. The Shepherd’s Center group sometimes sent along their own photos and little gifts: a ticket stub from a basketball playoffs game, a necklace, a poem.
Georgia Unroe, 83, of Kansas City, North, had a special surprise ready for meeting her pen pal, Kintzli Wagner. Unroe prepared a card with five $2 bills tucked inside: “It’s for her to open on her birthday.”
Blackman said letters from the older generation helped make history come alive for her students when they read about their pen pals’ World War II memories and about life before the Internet.
“I thought it might be educational for them to know what I did as a kid,” said Gloria Davenport, 74, of Gladstone.
So she wrote to her pen pals that “we didn’t have a lot of toys — we played with the neighborhood kids and our brothers and sisters and made our own fun.”
Davenport had two pen pals: a boy, Viet Nguyen, and a girl, Ford Nelson.
Viet told Davenport in his last letter of the year that she had an interesting life story. Ford wrote that having Davenport as a pen pal “has been a very fun experience for me.”
At the Learning & Laughter meeting, the St. Patrick fifth-graders performed for the older set. One group of students acted out the comedy routine “Who’s on First?” made famous by Abbott and Costello. The other group sang a campfire song.
Then it was time for pen pals to meet each other.
Dorothy Homan, 81, of Gladstone, greeted Alice Gamble with a big hug. Homan said the pen pals program helped “relieve the emptiness in my heart due to the death of my husband.”
In one of her letters, Alice asked Homan whether she had traveled much in her life.
Homan replied with descriptions of trips taken with her husband, who had been with TWA for 40 years.
After introductions were made, the students and seniors sat together and chatted. Then it was time to decorate birthday cupcakes.
“Do you like vanilla or chocolate?” Clarence Clarke asked his pen pal, Bruce Richard, 58, of Kansas City, North.
Vanilla was the answer, which was good, Clarence said, because he already had chosen vanilla cupcakes for the two of them to decorate.
Preferring vanilla to chocolate is one of several things the two pen pals have in common. Over five months of writing to each other, they discovered they both like the color blue and airplanes.
Richard wrote to Clarence about his fascination with the Flying Tigers airplanes of World War II and how he liked drawing the planes as a child.
Clarence said his interest was in “commercial aviation” and he hopes to pursue a career as a pilot or with an airplane manufacturing company.
In a letter to Richard, Clarence wrote, “I had the chance to pass the Downtown Airport and see more planes this summer.”
Richard said the letters from Clarence gave him something to look forward to.
The students were required to follow a letter format with a salutation and a greeting. There were no guidelines about length, and Blackman didn’t edit the letters.
Many of the students wrote in cursive penmanship, which is taught in second grade at St. Patrick. But most of what students read is typed text, so making out cursive was sometimes difficult for them.
“They aren’t used to reading cursive,” Blackman said. “I had to decipher handwriting for them at times.”
To encourage the nearly lost art of letter writing, all participants — young and old alike — were given gifts of stationery at the end of the meeting by Judy Rychlewski, a volunteer who coordinated the pen pal program.
By all accounts, Pens Across the Northland was a success.
“This program warmed my heart,” said Paula Cramer of Smithville, who came to pick up her mother, Joan Roberts, 89, of Gladstone, at the end of the meeting.
Cramer described the pen pal program as a much-needed, old-fashioned way of communicating.
“There needs to be more real-time, eye-to-eye contact in order to learn how to understand people and interpret nonverbal communication,” she said.
Plans for next year include expanding the program and starting earlier in the school year.