For the past few years, I’ve felt the pull to volunteer in some capacity. But I just haven’t found the right fit. And quite honestly, every time I think about making a serious commitment to some cause, I end up questioning where I think I’ll find the time between working, taking care of my mom and managing the household.
And then one day, my employer announced an opportunity that would allow me to contribute in a small way and do so on company time. Two birds. One stone. I was in like Flynn.
It’s a pen-pal program and we exchange letters with kids at a local elementary school. We’ll write to each other throughout the school year, and the program culminates this spring when we’ll get to meet in person at the pen-pal picnic! Our corporate office piloted the program last year and it was such a success, the opportunity was opened to all of our offices around the country this year. As soon as I volunteered, I anxiously waited to find out who my pal would be.
As it turns out, there weren’t enough volunteers at my office’s location. While volunteers at the other offices were already getting to know their pen-pals, it took an extra couple of weeks to figure things out for us. We finally learned that everyone who volunteered was assigned two kids. Easy enough. These are young students, probably with short attention spans. We’re asked to write a couple of simple paragraphs to each child, once every other week. We were instructed to print all of our letters as kids today aren’t learning cursive! That was so hard to imagine for those of us who spent our grade school years learning to perfectly form our letters between the precisely defined lines of school-issued writing paper.
Each volunteer shares one notebook with both of their kids. The notebooks travel back and forth each week between the office and the school. The adults writers kicked things off. I began writing to Darius and Theo knowing nothing but their first names and that they were probably in the third grade. I wrote an initial single letter to both boys, telling them a bit about myself, my family and my dog. I asked simple questions about their ages and families, as well as school and other interests.
What fun it was to receive the boys’ responses! I was amazed at how their personalities began to shine through right from the start. Darius told me he was nine years old, and I could see he was a bit reserved. He mainly answered the questions I’d asked in my first letter. But he also let me know that he loves to watch Star Wars Rebels. I have no idea what that is, but I am determined to become familiar in the interest of solidifying our friendship and drawing him out of his shell as we get to know each other. Darius also wanted to know Lucy’s age.
Theo, who is ten, was more open in his letter to me. And while it was immediately obvious that he’s not yet a big fan of punctuation, I was happy to find that we shared a connection as dog lovers. I learned that Theo’s dog, Hades is still a puppy and likes to eat “squrils.” I actually thought he was trying to tell me that eating the squirrel gave Hades the sh*ts, but I quickly realized I’d just misread his little boy writing. Thankfully, while Hades may have had the sh*ts, Theo only wanted to share that his dog had received shots. And he’s all better now.
On my second turn with the notebook, I wrote separate letters to each of the boys. We’re not allowed to send anything that could be construed as a gift, but photos, postcards, and things such as stickers are allowed. I decorated their pages with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Transformers stickers. I answered their questions, telling them a bit more about Lucy, and asked for more details about their families and pets. In their first letters, each had shared that they have a number of brothers and sisters. This time, I asked more questions about their siblings… how old they were, and whether they shared bedrooms, and if they got along well, or sometimes fought, as my kids did while growing up.
The boys’ responses were cute, both including little doodles around the margins. Theo framed his response in penciled, criss-cross formed stars. And with their replies, I was reminded of another detail that was given when I’d first attended the pen pal program’s informational session. It’s part of the reason we have a healthy snack drive going on for these same kids. Sixty percent of the children who attend our adopted school are from families living at or below the poverty line. As I read their letters, my mind made the leap to single-parent and broken-family situations. My heart broke a little when both boys answered my questions about their siblings. Darius’ note was both funny – when he told me about his cats, named Bug, Mush and Eva, and slightly sad when he answered my questions about his siblings. He told me that he does fight sometimes with one brother, “Nate, as I call him,” but that he hasn’t seen his other brothers in a long time. “And I miss them.”
Theo told me that he doesn’t live with his three brothers and sister, “but I see them sometimes.” He included an illustration of a time when he was with one brother. His brother is obviously older, and slightly bossy. Theo described how he was sitting on the couch and his brother told him, “Come on.” It was time to go to bed. Theo asked, “Why?” Apparently, the instruction given by his brother “confuesed” Theo.
But Theo made me smile too when he talked more about his puppy. I had told Theo that Lucy is a mixed breed, but it seems there is a lot of Boxer in her. Theo told me that Hades is “a full piple.” (You know. PIP-le. Or, Pitt Bull, as I like to call them.) Like Lucy, Hades apparently can’t resist breaking all of his toys. Theo included a p.s. in his letter, telling me that Hades is currently sixty pounds, with the potential to reach a hundred and ten! (Very precise is this boy!)
There’s already a soft-spot forming in my heart for these little guys, and I’m really hoping that our letters continue not only to encourage and improve their writing skills, but also to foster great friendships.