Pen-pal program bonds cross-cultural friends

Feb 5, 2013

LettersThe art of letter-writing may be fading, but not for a group of Heidelberg students, faculty and alumni who are doing their part to keep it alive.

Each spring, students and alumni, led by Dr. Cynthia Lepeley, travel to the Texas-Mexico border to participate in a week of service with children and families in three communities through A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE). The relationships formed with the children in the ARISE program is life changing for many of the Heidelberg participants. A pen pal program grew out of the students’ desire to continue their connections with the children throughout the year.

One alumnus, Andy Helms, has been on the border trip three times. He was eager to participate in the pen-pal program. “While I was on the border, I had a really amazing experience. I connected with the kids and families there more than I ever imagined I would,” Helms said. “Working with them for a week just didn’t seem like enough, so I jumped on the opportunity to write to a few of the kids I became especially close to.”

The pen-pal program, which began in 2008, helps the children with their reading, writing and English skills and is also a great way to cultivate cross-cultural friendships, Lepeley said.

Sixteen children in Muniz, Mexico, are the most faithful letter writers, sharing correspondence with their American friends about every month or two. Some of the children, who range in age from 7 to 13, have more than one ‘Berg pen pal, as do the Heidelberg students and alumni.

The program takes a bit of organization on both ends. When Lepeley receives the large, yellow envelope, she distributes the letters to the Heidelberg pen pals, who respond within a week or two. The letters are then mailed back to ARISE, where volunteers organize letter-writing sessions for the children. The cycle repeats every month or two.

“For some of the children, reading and writing isn’t easy, but the women there say that they are always very excited to get our letters and that motivates them to want to write back,” Lepeley said, noting that all of the correspondence is in English.

A letterSenior Craig Sykes has traveled to the border twice. He was moved by the hospitality and kindness of the families he met. Despite the language barrier, he found that the children are much the same, regardless of where they live. “During the week there, you build such great relationships with the kids that you pal around with all day,” he said. “Although you may not be able to understand some of them completely, the interaction is enough on its own.”

Sykes formed a bond with a young boy named Jesus Lara, with whom he corresponded for a brief time. “I figured everyone needs a good friend to talk to, even if it is just writing.” Jesus moved away and Sykes lost contact with him, but has since taken up writing to several other pen pals.

The contents of the letters are typical: school, holidays, families. “Maybe a piece of advice here and there with the older kids,” Sykes said. Some of the children express their artistic sides by decorating the letters and envelopes, and they like to send and receive photos as well.

Seven-year-old Maggie has a special bond with Helms. She has a white teddy bear she named after him, and she likes to tell her secrets to the bear, Lepeley said.

“I plan to continue writing to my pen pals as long as they continue to write to me,” Helms said. “The people and children I met on the border trip mean so much to me, and it’s very important to me that I continue that relationship.”

Lepeley is proud of her students for following through every time that big yellow envelope arrives. “I’m very proud of their commitment to the kids. It means a lot them,” she said.