by Moira Cullings
PRAIRIE VILLAGE — The animated camaraderie at St. Ann Parish here on April 7 made the parish hall gathering feel more like a family reunion.
Some of the youngest and oldest members of the parish and school eagerly filled the space for this year’s Pen Friend party.
The Pen Friend program, in its fourth year at St. Ann, pairs a third through eighth grade student with an older parishioner.
Throughout the school year, the friends write letters to each other, and in the spring, they gather in person to converse and participate in activities.
After two years of hiatus due to COVID-19, the pen friends reunited again in-person.
Gary Adams was excited to see his pen friend, sixth grader Maximus Canale.
“About three times a year, we send letters,” said Adams. “[We write about] what our plans are, what’s going on in the sports world, typical guy talk.”
“It’s been really nice and positive,” said Canale, who added he’s even received a few McDonald’s gift cards from his friend. “We talk about all sorts of things like sports [and] spelling bees.”
Adams has enjoyed getting to know Canale over the past few years.
“My children are both grown and on each coast,” he said, “so it’s a way to stay connected to what’s going on with the youth and see them progress.”
For most of the students, including eighth grader Millie Byerley, receiving a handwritten letter in the mail is a rare occurrence.
“It’s always so exciting to see your letters and your beautiful cards,” she told her pen friend Sandy Spaw. “I love opening them and reading them out loud to people. I’m so happy and feel so good when I get a letter.”
Spaw has been delighted by the Pen Friend program.
“Unless you have grandchildren who go to school here, you feel kind of distant,” she said. “This is a wonderful way to get to know a very special young person.”
Byerley said the pair write about “what’s happening in our lives at the time, any trips we’ve been on.”
“Millie does a lot of Irish dancing,” said Spaw, “so she will write to me and tell me where she’s going, what competitions, vacations [she’s going on and] about her family. It’s just wonderful.”
Byerley even shared her Irish dancing talents with Spaw’s friends and family who gathered at her and her husband David’s 50th wedding anniversary party three years ago.
“Seeing everybody come into the party and dancing in the middle was so fun,” said Byerley.
Spaw hopes the pair will stay in touch when Byerley goes off to high school in the fall.
Rooted in respect
Anne Edmonds created the Pen Friend program during Catholic Schools Week in January 2018, and the following year held the first in-person gathering.
“For almost any elder, being around children is a positive,” she said. “Matching up students with parishioners accomplishes even more than that. It brings the school and the church community closer together.”
Edmonds was inspired to launch the program after caring for her aging parents.
“I became acutely aware while visiting my dad in an assisted living home how much joy younger folks bring to their elders,” she said.
At the time, she was an instructional assistant at St. Ann School. She began inviting students to join her in visiting parishioners at assisted living homes and wanted to take it a step further.
The current parishioners involved in the Pen Friend program range in age from 70-99 years old.
Edmonds believes the experience can instill a sense of respect in the youth for their elders, but that they’ll also have fun getting to know them.
“We have explained to the students that some of the eldest members of the parish may live alone or in a senior living home,” she said, “and may not receive a visitor or a letter in the mailbox for days on end.
“I think the kids are beginning to understand the value in that simple note they write. They know their letter may be the only bright spot in their Pen Friend’s day.”
Edmonds hopes the program will continue to flourish.
“Our elders have so much to offer,” she said, “and the younger generation has so much to learn from them.
“I think it’s so easy for the younger folks to dismiss their elders instead of embrace them. Hopefully, this program will open their eyes and inspire them to continue involvement with our seniors.”
For a full album of photos from the Pen Friend party, click here.