by Corrinne Lennox
It started with an article appearing in the December 2016 Riderwood Reporter by Amy Holzer, Community Resources Coordinator, and Judy Felsenfeld, Volunteer Coordinator. “If you like to write and make a difference in a child’s life, consider joining a new pen pal group,” it said.
On January 13, Amy, Judy and ten Riderwood residents met in a Lakeside Commons classroom with Caser Kerr, gym teacher and innovator of the pen pal program at Edward M. Felegy Elementary School in Hyattsville, MD.
Riderwood volunteers would be writing to 20 fifth graders, all of whom had volunteered to participate in the program. The majority of the school’s population is of Hispanic origin, so the program focused on both increasing students’ letter writing skills and community participation.
Over the next five months, resident volunteers exchanged letters with students weekly. Group leaders, Rhoda Sumner and Sulocha Fernandopulle, coordinated with Kerr, ensuring that letters were received and hand-delivered to the students.
“Thanks for being my friend. I finally have someone to talk to,” said one student. Another student asked, “I have a new friend and he is a boy. Question: Is this normal?”
On June 2, the volunteers boarded a Riderwood bus to meet the students in Hyattsville. When the students saw the bus, they began cheering, which brought tears to Judy’s eyes. “I am wearing my Sunday best to look special for you,” said one student.
After getting acquainted, students shared what they liked most about their pen pal. A few responses included learning about World War II, having a pen pal that likes to shop, and being able to write to someone who can speak their language.
Riderwood volunteers later recapped favorite pen pal experiences. One resident shared her student’s eagerness to learn more about her home country and culture. Another resident volunteer spoke of a student’s letter describing a serious family loss. The volunteers agreed that it was an experience of a lifetime and there are plans to continue the pen pal program next year.