SPOKANE, Wash. — Aging is a difficult concept for first-graders, who often view age 55 the same as 85. These 6- and 7-year-olds can hardly imagine themselves as elderly, using terms like “scary” and “really weird” to describe life many decades from now.
Yet students of Andrea Snider at Chester Elementary in Spokane Valley understand the importance of a handwritten letter, especially to homebound elders in the community who may not have much communication with children or anyone else.
Recently, Meals on Wheels of Spokane launched a new pen pal program, in which the first-graders write letters, send photos and draw pictures for clients receiving home-delivered meals. The seniors are nearly as excited as the students, both groups gushing about the idea and waiting anxiously to receive another letter.
“I just like the idea so much,” said Carole Owens, 82, who excitedly opened her first letter recently that included a colorful drawing and hearts from a student named Kylee. “It’s good to have communication between the generations.”
In big block letters, Kylee wrote in pencil, “I am a 1 grader. I love drawing. I love sending mesajes!”
The following day, Owens, a retired art teacher who raised champion show rabbits, wrote the student back. The letters included notebook paper, pens and envelopes so the seniors could easily send a letter.
“I just told her my name and that I have a rabbit,” Owens said. “Her name is Lady and she is precious. She’s white with black spots and she is the sweetest creature on the Earth.”
Owens enjoys handwriting letters and has regularly exchanged notes with a friend for 25 years. Yet she doesn’t get letters from her nearly grown granddaughters. The girls prefer email, technology Owens hasn’t yet tackled. But she is willing to learn.
Snider said she always teaches her students how to write letters, but this year a friend suggested reaching out to Meals on Wheels of Spokane, which delivers 500 meals daily and more than 116,000 meals each year.
“We wanted to reach out into the community and do something kind for someone,” Snider said.
Meals on Wheels of Spokane director Mollie Dalpae loved the idea.
“I hope other schools pick it up,” Dalpae said. “This is a generation that writes. Having a pen pal is exactly what we used to do.”
Recently, about 20 students in Snider’s class gathered on the floor and excitedly told about writing their letters, filled with details about their favorite hobbies, a sports team or a family pet. Nearly every hand raised to share their pen pal experience. Most of the first-graders have written letters before — to grandparents, aunts and uncles and parents. Yet not nearly as many had actually received a handwritten letter in the mail, which isn’t uncommon with this generation that’s more familiar with emails, Facebook messages and texts. The idea of getting a letter back is exhilarating for the students.
According to the U.S. Postal Service’s annual survey, the average home received a personal letter once every seven weeks in 2012, down from once every two weeks in 1987 — a 56 percent decline.
Student Paisley Wilson had never written, or received, a letter before the class assignment.
“It was really fun,” she said. “I just told about my life and asked if they could write me back. I haven’t gotten a letter before.”
Emerson Lippoldt hopes his letter makes a senior happy.
“If they are lonely and I write them letters maybe it can make them feel better,” he said.
Samantha Hodges said she plays a game similar to house where she writes letters and pretends to give them to people. Now she has a real person to write. Samantha smiled broadly at the thought of maybe getting a letter in return.
Owens, who has received Meals on Wheels for about a year, is so inspired by the students that she is willing to write to some of the children who don’t receive letters back from their Meals on Wheels pals.
“I like to encourage people,” she said.
First-grader Avery Whitmire was also inspired by her letter-writing assignment.
“Today after school, I’m going to write a note to my grandma,” she said.