Darien pen pal program connects seniors to children
In the 1930s, when Darien resident Julie Rikert was staying at her grandparent’s house in the South, there was no water and electricity.
“We had to pump our own water,” Rikert said. “We heated it and had a bath in the kitchen.”
That’s just one story of many that Rikert said she hopes to share with Isabelle, a little girl she’s writing to through a new Intergenerational Pen Pal Program.
The free program pairs seniors from At Home in Darien with children from the Tokeneke Elementary Kids Care Club, an after-school program for children in first through fifth grade that focuses on community involvement and service.
Gina Blum, At Home In Darien’s executive director, started the pen pal program.
At Home in Darien is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the lives of seniors, and enable them to live in their own homes for as long as possible.
Approximately 50 children are participating in the pen pal program. Each of them has been matched with one senior.
The children meet monthly after school. Their letters are mailed to the seniors.
Blum said that seniors enjoy receiving a handwritten letter in the mail, and it helps them feel more connected to the community.
“A pen pal program gives seniors an opportunity to share wisdom or a piece of personal history,” she said. “In addition to developing a special relationship with a senior, the program gives students the opportunity to practice their writing and communication skills which will be invaluable later in life.”
Hugh Heindl, 7, who is paired up with “Miss Kathleen,” said he told her that,“my favorite color is blue and green.” He also told her that his favorite food is a “corn dog.”
He added that he wants to find out his pen pal’s favorite food and color, and wants to know “if we are related in any way.”
Hugh said he “likes being a pen pal to a senior.”
“I bet they will get the feeling of what they thought when they were a kid,” he added.
Hugh said he hasn’t written too many letters before writing to his pen pal, except “to Santa a few times.”
Everette Spinner, 8, said the pen pal program is “very fun.”
She is matched with “Miss Carole,” and in her letter, she included “a little star pink sticker.”
Everette said she is wondering where her pen pal went to second grade. “Maybe, she went to Tokeneke,” Everette said.
Everette said she told her pen pal that her eyes are blue and she has brown, straight hair.
“I wonder what she looks like,” Everette said, referring to her pen pal. “I hope to meet her one day.”
Everette said that she writes to her grandmother Mimi, who lives in Texas.“It’s hard to see her, so I write to her very often,” she said.
She added that she “likes the idea of a pen pal because I know everyone in second grade and everyone in the school, but with a pen pal, I can make friends and reach out across the world and say ‘hi’ to people.”
Rikert said the pen pal program provides children with an opportunity to learn about the parts of history that they can’t read in a book.
“We are like grandparents to these kids, in telling them our hobbies and where we are from,” said Rikert, 87, who has two great-grandchildren. She worked as a teacher, ballroom dancer, and singer.
Rikert has already found something she has in common with her pen pal — basketball.
“She told me that she plays basketball,” Rikert said. “I was a basketball player at Rogers School in Stamford. I played basketball from elementary to middle school.”
She said Isabelle reminds her of a childhood friend of hers with the same name.
“I met her when I was a little kid and we had just moved into Belltown, in Stamford. It was before World World II,” Rikert said. “I grew up with brothers. Isabelle was like my sister. In those days, you just played with pets and rode our bikes. Isabelle lived across the street. When I was done with my chores, I went and played with her. I don’t think I’ve met another Isabelle since then.”
Joan Collins of Darien, who is paired with 6-year-old Cole, said this age is a “formative” one.
“They are learning the good and bad, the big and small. They are hearing so much information,” said Collins, 87, who has three children and seven grandchildren. Her jobs had included an assistant buyer of toys, a sales representative, and a copywriter.
She said the pen pal program is “very necessary for children.”
“It’s very important for them to learn to put their thoughts down in writing,” said Collins.
She added that young people spend too much time on their electronic devices, such as texting.
She said she doesn’t want the children to think of writing letters as a “chore” or “homework.”
Collins said is hopeful that the pen pal program will continue to grow. “I’d like to see this young man get through elementary school,” she said.
Janet Fisher, who has lived in Darien since 1970, is paired with a first grader named Lucy.
She said children can benefit very much from seniors. “[Seniors] have time to sit down and correspond, whereas younger people are always so time pressured,” said Fisher, 91, who has two children and a grandson.
In addition, she said it’s “fun reading their comments. Lucy wrote that her favorite food is candy. I get such a charge out of that.”
Fisher wrote back and said her favorite food was marshmallows. “I tried to get on her level,” she said.
She said the pen pal program lets children know there are other people outside their family that are interested in children.
“I realize that so many children do not have extended members of family around them today because young parents travel so much and are relocated. I’ve gone through that myself,” Fisher said.
“It’s good for children to have an extended friendship,” she added.