by Moira Cullings
SHAWNEE — Living through a pandemic hasn’t been easy for Betty Calcara, who has lived alone since her husband Mike passed away in 2014.
After the “stay at home” order went into effect in Kansas, Calcara said her days have sometimes been “long and a little depressing.”
“When the virus quarantine hit us, my days being confined to home became more tiresome and lonely,” she said, “and errand running was limited to drive-thru activities with brief, masked, face-to-face conversations.”
But one day, Calcara received an unexpected letter in the mail, and it brought a real joy to her life.
The letter was from a boy named Roman Derington, who attends St. Joseph School in Shawnee.
Calcara initially “thought he was writing because he was told by a parishioner friend that I was alone and would like to hear from someone to cheer me up.”
“I remember smiling and thinking about how sweet it was for him to express his thoughts of me being confined to home,” she added.
But Roman’s letter wasn’t random. He is among several St. Joseph students who are participating in a new pen pal initiative, created to connect young students at the parish school with older parishioners who might be feeling lonely during this time.
“We were trying to think of a way for these great kids to give back to their community,” said Nicole Pick, who came up with the pen pal idea after hearing about the parish’s phone calling ministry spearheaded by St. Joseph youth minister Jared Rottinghaus.
Her daughter Ellie will be in second grade this fall, and her class has always been eager to help the community through various service projects, said Pick.
“The kids have such sweet hearts,” she said. “They really want to make people happy. They’ve all been very willing to jump in and help and write their letters.”
The program was designed for the soon-to-be second-graders, but siblings from other grades are also participating. They’re given a pen pal who they can draw pictures for and write letters to, with the goal of brightening their day and building a connection without the help of technology.
Roman’s younger brother Novah also participates in the program, and their mom Amanda said the program has helped him understand the impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives.
“He’s not totally understanding what it means when we can’t go out and we can’t connect with people the way that we normally would,” said Derington.
“Having a project like this where he can send these letters and cards and keep some people active and in the loop helps show him why being able to stay connected with people is so important,” she continued.
Novah is sharing with his pen pals a passion he has for drawing and art, and Derington hopes it brings a smile to their faces.
“I would imagine that most of these folks are older adults who may or may not have grandkids and may or may not have their families near to them,” she said.
“Having some kiddos come into your life with their playfulness and their optimism could be a really cool connection for both sides to be able to experience,” she added.
Although the initiative was designed with the “stay at home” order in mind, many of the participants hope to continue writing back and forth, and even meet in person, after the state opens back up.
“I have written a note [back] to Roman,” said Calcara, “and I hope we will continue to coordinate with each other often.
“It will be an opportunity for me to be encouraging to him when he writes about his school and church activities, and also while he is going through the ‘ups and downs’ of life that he might be facing.”
Having a pen pal has not only brightened up Calcara’s life, but it’s also given her hope to see the kindness of young people.
“I am very touched and gratified to know that our young people are receiving special guidance on showing love and concern for others — particularly for the older generation,” she said.
Pick hopes the initiative can continue to brighten lives in the St. Joseph community for months to come.
“I’m so proud of the St. Joe kids,” she said. “They have hearts of gold and they’re so sweet and so excited to be able to jump in and help out and find ways to bring joy to people. That just makes me feel really good.
“It gives me a lot of hope even when things are a little bit hard.”