Middle school pen pal project is bridging the generation gap
By Clay Schuldt
Special for the Argus
For the past 15 years Caledonia Middle School students have been participating in a program that unites the generation gap—one letter at a time. The Middle School Pen Pal Program connects a seventh grade student with a local senior citizen. Every month the students and senior citizens trade letters for around seven months.
Part of the fun of the Pen Pal Program is that the identity of everyone’s pen pal is kept a secret until the end of the program. Everyone chooses a code name to sign their letters. At the end of the year the students and their pen pals are able to finally meet in person at a special gathering.
This year the meeting took place on May 29 in middle school teacher Janelle Rohrer’s classroom. For many it was an exciting moment for the pen pals to meet after writing each other for over half a year.
“The project started out the first year when I was teaching sixth grade with the 26 students I had in my class and 26 RSVP volunteers,” Rohrer explained. “The next year I expanded it to include all sixth grade students.”
Over the years the program has expanded to as many as 60-70 students and senior volunteers, depending on the size of the current class. Originally Rohrer taught the class as part of the social studies curriculum, but now it is part of the seventh grade language arts classes. The project began with Rohrer’s sister, Jean Meyer, who was working at Semcac and had the idea for the RSVP program. The program allows students to gain communication skills in an art that is often lost in the age of instant messages and texts.
In addition, the program helps bridge the generation gap and dispels stereotypes both groups had about each other.
“It’s not just the letter writing aspect,” said pen pal volunteer Mary Jane Hendel. “It’s learning the community history.” Hendel has been volunteering in the program off and on for the last five years, and is excited by the chance to teach and learn from the young generations.
For Hendel, one of the unique aspects of this program is noticing how the world has changed through the experiences of her pen pals.
“A couple a years ago,” Hendel remembers, “I had a young woman who was very interested in sports. She wanted to know what sports I participated in and so I told her what was available to me as a child…nothing!”
Hendel had to explain to her pen pal that back in her day the only school sport available for girls was cheerleading. Sometimes the girls would be allowed to play sports in gym class, but even that was limited. For instance, girls playing basketball were only allowed to dribble the ball a few times before passing and were told not to cross the center line.
Hendel of course took the time to tell her pen pal all about Title 9, which in 1972 finally made it illegal to discriminate against gender in educational programs. It was information like this that proved to be a real eye opener for the younger generation. Hendel commented that many of the students are unaware that much of modern society is relatively new.
However, Hendel is often shocked how much the two generations have in common. Hendel is even taking a few cues from the younger generation. All of the kids seemed to be reading The Hunger Games trilogy, so Hendel gave it a chance.
“Just because all the kids were reading it and were interested, and the senior high English teacher was interested, I read them too! I found them to be quite interesting.”
The pen pal program does not always end with the school year. Some of the students keep in contact with their pen pals over the years. Rohrer has even heard of a few pen pals being invited to student’s graduations and even weddings years later. The program continues to inspire others to reach out and form lasting connections. Hendel’s 10-year-old granddaughter Sydney Hendel is currently seeking a pen pal of her own.
The Pen Pal Program itself has gone through a few changes in the last 15 years. While the program was originally run through Semcac, the funding for the project has been discontinued. However Rohrer felt the need to keep it going.
“I saw the benefit for students,” said Rohrer. “I have been doing the project with the help of Dorothy Manhart.”
Manhart helps in contacting and enlisting all volunteers for the year, as well as each month collecting letters and bringing them to the school.
“She is instrumental in making the program a success,” said Rohrer. Seniors who wish to join the program next year may contact Rohrer or Manhart.